Olive Woo Murphy 1/08/03 3/29/06

At the meeting, one mother spoke up to say she'd had similar thoughts herself a year or so ago. She described how she mentioned this to a friend, the friend took her to get help, and she's under care, feeling better. And her kids are well and safe, too.

"It's somewhat surprising that we don't have more children being seriously injured and dying," Baxter said. "The stresses on parents are so high, and so great across the board. I think many parents suffer in silence."

Added Belinda Lyons, executive director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco: "We tend to deal with mental illness when people have fallen through the cracks."

Like everywhere, San Francisco's system of caring for the mentally ill is notoriously inadequate. And in San Francisco, like other cities, it's easy to become isolated. Neighbors here don't know each other. Families with children are becoming scarcer by the year as parents move out of the city, and thus increasingly less a subject of popular concern.

But as with so many things in San Francisco civic life, there is actually a lot going on in this city to make things easier for caregivers and their children. Proposition 82 on this summer's ballot would direct funds to preschool programs for four-year-olds. An initiative in 2004 taxed millionaires 1 percent with the money directed toward mental health programs, though advocates here say funds were distributed unfairly between counties. Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a San Francisco-based political organization aimed at improving children's lot held a rally Saturday demanding more government programs designed to make it easier for families to stay in the city. There's clearly generalized sympathy here for the idea of helping families. There are good ways to channel that sympathy into specific action, experts I spoke to say.

People who know a child they fear may be in danger can call 415-565-SAVE, the city's hotline for suspected child abuse.

The nonprofit San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center has a hotline, 415-441-KIDS, where stressed-out or otherwise isolated, overburdened, or troubled parents can call for support, information, and referrals to other family support organizations. The Child Abuse Council also hosts a drop-in center in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood where a parent in the middle of a crisis, or otherwise in need of a break, can rest a little as kids play in a child-care center. Parents can also avail themselves of counseling and other services, or sign up for any of a series of groups and workshops aimed at keeping parents sane. The center has a list of services at www.talklineforparents.org.

It's often true, however, that the most anguished parents don't get hooked up with the right help. People who thought they knew Olive Murphy and Linda Woo well, for example, say they had no inkling of the mother's mind frame."There's a really big disconnect between people doing the work to support families and prevent violence, and people not getting help, not knowing it's there," said Fox.

In Fox's view, the best way to prevent tragedies such as Olive's death, or to simply ease the mental suffering of a troubled parent, is to butt in. Try to make yourself an adult presence in the lives of children you know. Talk to parents. Ask how they're doing. And listen, carefully, Fox advises.

"The rest of us have to bear some responsibility," he said. "When someone thinks they have someone who cares, someone to talk to, that connection turns the irrationality down. When somebody says, 'Gee, maybe I can watch your kid for an hour. How about I drop your kid off at the playground?' That little stress relief can make all the difference."

A citywide pre-Mother's Day uptick in this sort of subtle rescuing might be a bit too mundane to become fodder for prime-time hyperbole. But as wrenching for many people as Olive Murphy's death may have been, I still think such a result would be kind of nice.

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