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In teen's memory, a mental health push

Bill would alter care for youths

Sixteen-year-old Yolanda M. Torres sat next to her mother, Mary Ann Tufts, as she testified about the shortcomings of mental health care for children at a State House hearing on May 7, 2007. Sixteen-year-old Yolanda M. Torres sat next to her mother, Mary Ann Tufts, as she testified about the shortcomings of mental health care for children at a State House hearing on May 7, 2007. (Health Care For All)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Carey Goldberg
Globe Staff / May 5, 2008

The teenager spoke so eloquently about the wild cycles of bipolar disorder that she drew tears from a State House audience last May. Testifying about flaws she had seen in the mental health system, she wanted to show that one girl could make a difference. She signed her notes, "Stay strong."

Sixteen-year-old Yolanda M. Torres of Plymouth was supposed to be a poster child for the proposal currently in the Legislature to improve mental health care for children.

But not like this. In late January, in a violent impulse she left no note to explain, Yolanda committed suicide.

Now a coalition of advocates for mentally ill children plans to nickname the bill "Yolanda's Law."

"Would she want to be a poster child because she killed herself? No, she'd be ashamed of herself," said Mary Ann Tufts, Yolanda's mother. She wouldn't want others to attempt suicide, and "she cer tainly didn't do it to make a point," Tufts said, but "she would be greatly honored by the recognition."

The bill proposes an array of changes to the state's system. They include: training to help school personnel deal better with mental illness in students; requiring insurance companies to pay for the time it takes doctors, teachers, and others to coordinate a child's care; and increasing screening for mental illness in children.

The measure is under consideration in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Still in its early stages, it has no price tag attached yet. Patrick administration officials say they are committed to improving the children's mental health system in general, but have taken no position yet on this specific bill.

Its lead sponsor, Senator Steven A. Tolman, said that the measure offers "relief to the families who go through hell to get the proper services."

Tolman recalled that Yolanda was initially jittery about appearing at the State House, but he urged her to speak, "and then her testimony was very, very powerful," he said. "She was even proud of herself."

Yolanda's experiences with the mental health system illustrate many of the shortcomings that the bill aims to correct, Tufts said. It was always "too little, too late," she said, and Yolanda "didn't want to see anyone else suffer the indignities of it."

Yolanda's life was difficult from the start. Her birth mother bore three children by the time she was 18; Yolanda was the youngest, and suffered a skull fracture as a toddler, Tufts said. Tufts and her husband, Mauricio Torres, adopted the three sisters through the Department of Social Services when they were 3, 4, and 5.

All three were wild, but the couple naively believed the gospel that love could cure all ills, she said. As the years passed, however, the magnitude of the sisters' psychiatric problems became clear. Early mental health screening might have picked up their illnesses, Tufts said, but, as it was, school officials and therapists tended to say, "There's nothing wrong with her" beyond the adjustment that comes with adoption.

Wracked by anxiety and psychosis, Yolanda got her first heavy-duty psychiatric diagnosis - and was hospitalized for the first time - at the end of seventh grade. She had visions of blood and falling walls; she could not sleep, and nothing could soothe her.

"She used to scream, 'Why, why, why do we have to have this bipolar?' " her father said.

She tried drug after drug, from antipsychotics to mood stabilizers to antianxiety pills to lithium - some that caused a weight gain of 50 pounds on her 5-foot frame. She was hospitalized several times over a two-year period, and attempted suicide at least once. After her parents went through much trial and error finding the right clinicians for her, Yolanda became more stable. But she still had to deal with being stigmatized by other students and a middle school where, Tufts said, she felt like a caged animal. "People didn't know how to deal with her," she said; the training provided in "Yolanda's law" would help others do better, she said.

Yolanda fought for and won a placement in a therapeutic school, and her daily life improved. A live-wire of a girl, she was awarded "best smile" in her school yearbook.

Last May, she came to Boston intending to watch her mother testify for the children's mental health bill and ended up testifying herself. By all accounts she stole the show. "She talked about how hard it is to sit in an emergency room and you see the look in your parents' eyes, and they really can't help you get through it but they're there for you," Tufts said. "She cried, but she kept talking. It empowered her a lot, that she was able to do that."

Yolanda had waited as long as two days in hospital emergency rooms for a psychiatric bed to become available, watched all the while by security guards. The pending bill includes measures to ease such backups and get children more quickly into psychiatric care.

Last December, Yolanda took a turn for the worse and had to be hospitalized again. Christmas was always hard for her, Tufts said; it was when she most felt the lingering hole left by her birth mother.

By late January, she seemed better. She was about to get her driver's license. The snowy Sunday when she hanged herself, she had been looking forward to a scrapbooking class the next day in school, Tufts said, and to finding out whether she would be hired for an after-school job at Annie's Pretzels.

"She had come a long way," Torres said. "She was not at the worst point in her life."

Yolanda's parents have asked themselves again and again where they might have failed, for all their support and love.

In a memorial essay, Tufts wrote: "There were many times her Dad and I lay with her as she cried and promised that if we were able to take away her pain and put it on ourselves, we would. Now, I think we have. . . . No more meds, blood draws, voices, hallucinations, insinuations or stigma. I envision her being kissed by the sun on white sandy beaches. Singing and laughing and always calm."

Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@globe.com.

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