An advocate for parents whose children struggle with mental illness

EVERETT — Armed with plates of homemade cookies, lists of phone numbers, and a heart filled with good intentions, Carolyn Hetherwick Goza welcomes families into the church meeting room as if they were stepping into her home.

She hugs worn out moms and her warm southern accent soothes newcomers, who finally put a face to the reassuring voice they’ve only heard over the phone. For two hours, which often stretch into three, Hetherwick Goza consoles parents and grandparents who are there to vent, cry, ask for guidance, support each other and sometimes celebrate stability.

They are raising children living with mental illnesses.

Their children’s conditions range in severity and symptoms. Most are teens and some are in their early 20s. The families have been to emergency rooms, juvenile detention centers, court hearings and counseling sessions.

Some parents have been assaulted by their children. Others can no longer let their child live at home, to protect younger siblings. Some have teens who threaten suicide. Others are out of crisis mode and can see a future not defined solely by an illness, giving hope and encouragement to other parents.

All have watched their children suffer and struggle.

“It’s like living next to a minefield, and your child forgets the dangers and keeps wandering through the field. You have to pick your way through and bring them back safely,” explained one mother, who asked not to be named.

“If your child has cancer, people rally behind you. If your child has a mental illness, they don’t want to be near you,” parent Starla Bressler said.

Hetherwick Goza, 69, started leading the support group several years ago. She’s lived through the challenges of caring for someone with a mental illness.

“People just don’t know the hell that’s going on in these parents’ homes,” Hetherwick Goza said.

Earlier this month — on Aug. 5 — Hetherwick Goza welcomed about 15 parents in the Calvin Lounge at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Everett. She shared part of her own story: That evening marked the 10th anniversary of the deaths of her husband and grandson.

Bryan Hetherwick shot 5-year-old Brennan in the parking lot in front of the Monroe police station. He then killed himself, ending a decades-long battle with depression.

Since then Hetherwick Goza, a retired special education teacher and college instructor, has been an outspoken crusader for improving mental health services for young people and pushing Snohomish County leaders to offer more assistance to families.

“The only things that move the big boat of government are hard shoves from advocates like her,” said Ken Stark, director of the county’s Human Services department. “This is her passion and compassion.”

The love of her life

Hetherwick Goza says her husband’s depression began to spiral after he was laid off from his longtime insurance job in Texas and couldn’t land a new one. He’d been hospitalized for depression several times over the years. The couple moved to Monroe in the spring of 2004 to be closer to their daughter and to look for work. The move was too much for Hetherwick, 58. He was overcome, and hospitalized overnight, but was released when doctors determined he wasn’t an imminent danger to himself or others.

He attended therapy and took his medication, but he was losing weight and communicating less with his wife.

At the same time, Hetherwick Goza was recovering from a debilitating relapse of her multiple sclerosis.

They also were going through a particularly rough patch with Brennan, who they raised since he was an infant. The child’s father — their son — has bipolar disorder and wasn’t able to care for him. Brennan, like his father, also had mental illness, something they saw early on.

They searched for a daycare or preschool in Snohomish County that could meet Brennan’s needs. Five schools turned them down, Hetherwick Goza said. The day before the shootings, the school Brennan was in told Bryan Hetherwick that the boy couldn’t come back unless he had an aide.

Her husband came home defeated, Hetherwick Goza said. They spent years fighting for their son and now they were starting all over again for Brennan.

Hetherwick Goza left that afternoon to sign some paperwork to release Brennan’s medical records, a necessary step in trying to find him another school in another county.

When she left the house, her husband was home with the boy, folding clothes. While she was out, he took Brennan to Mukilteo and bought a gun from a private seller.

Hetherwick Goza came home to an empty house. The television was on and the door was open. There wasn’t a note. The couple had been married for nearly 40 years. They always left notes for each other when they went out. She called his cellphone. It was getting close to supper time; Brennan was going to be hungry.

Five police cars pulled up. They broke the news. Her husband and Brennan were dead.

Bryan Hetherwick had slipped a note under the wiper on his car’s windshield. He no longer wanted to be a burden. He didn’t want to leave his wife to raise their grandson alone. Her husband, who adored the boy and was so compassionate, couldn’t see a way out.

“He had been the love of my life,” Hetherwick Goza said.

The two had met at a church youth group when they were just 13 in their native Louisiana. They went off to separate colleges, reconnected during a summer break and married on Christmas Eve 1966.

The Hetherwicks tried to have children for several years before adopting their son and daughter. The couple hadn’t intended to adopt a special-needs child, but it soon became clear that their son was mentally ill. His erratic behavior and aggression increased as he became older, and he was in therapy before he was in elementary school.

“God for some reason felt like we could take care of these kids,” Hetherwick Goza said.

They worked together and fought for their son’s care.

If there wasn’t a program available, Hetherwick Goza pushed and prodded until she got help. He was hospitalized as a teenager; a placement that, his mom said, likely saved his life.

A complicated system

Hetherwick Goza is adamant that more can be done for parents raising mentally ill children, who often are left to maneuver through system without guidance.

There are resources out there, albeit not enough, she said.

“It’s like a secret tunnel and they don’t know how to find the opening,” she said. “You can’t give a stressed out parent a list of phone numbers to call in the middle of a crisis.”

Snohomish County is poised to hire a person to help families in crisis navigate the complicated systems of care, Stark said. That person also will work with people in the community who encounter kids in need.

“It is a maze in part because of how services are funded,” Stark said.

Each funding source has separate eligibility criteria, and different agencies managing the care. It gets more complicated depending on the individual’s condition, and whether it’s considered a severe and persistent mental illness. Stark hopes that recently enacted legislation will help untangle the funding stream.

Meanwhile more people are qualifying for publicly funded health care under the federal Affordable Care Act. Most low-income children are eligible, Stark said. Those plans must screen people for mental health or substance abuse services, if requested, so it’s critical that parents get their children signed up for benefits, Stark said.

Their family and support

Hetherwick Goza sits on numerous regional advisory boards, including the committee that oversees how Snohomish County spends millions of dollars in sales tax money specifically collected for mental health and substance abuse services.

At the board meetings, Hetherwick Goza is always pushing, always asking: “How does this help the kiddos?”

Twice a year she volunteers to teach a free six-week class to people raising mentally ill children and teens. She has since remarried, and her husband, Michael Goza, teaches with her.

The parents who take the class become an extension of her family. They have her home phone number and she takes their calls day or night. Sometimes they just need someone to listen. Other times she is their resource guru, encouraging them not to take no for an answer.

“Washington state makes it so difficult to help children with mental illness,” Bressler said.

She and her husband attended the BASICS course, which is sponsored by the county’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

After the course, Hetherwick Goza kept in touch with the Bresslers. She wrote a letter on their behalf, trying to cut red tape with their insurance plan.

“She has followed us when we were in the throes of hell with this,” Bressler said. “This is her life.”

Hetherwick Goza attends court hearings with overwhelmed parents and joins them when they ask school districts for more specialized help. Just a couple of weeks ago she spent time with a Snohomish mother whose developmentally disabled teenage daughter was kidnapped by a 60-year-old man. The girl’s mother has battled with the state Department of Social and Health Services and other juvenile agencies to find appropriate help for the 14-year-old. Hetherwick Goza helps by making calls and firing off emails.

Hetherwick Goza worries that the mother isn’t getting a respite from the constant battle. Hetherwick Goza recognizes the woman’s chronic fatigue.

She points out that there are no in-patient psychiatric facilities for juveniles in Snohomish County, the third largest county in the state, with a population of 745,000 people. The nearest facility, Fairfax Behavioral Health, is in Kirkland.

Hetherwick Goza says she helps because she has been that parent, is that parent, whose child and grandchild were born with a mental illness.

“I don’t want anyone else to lose their baby,” she said.

A life making phone calls

She calls them “my parents” — the ones who come to her class, or call her in a panic, or gather with her the first Tuesday of every month. Hetherwick Goza wants them to know that they aren’t alone. It’s easy to feel isolated or inadequate because of their children’s illnesses. She encourages them to take care of themselves and to reach out for help. Ultimately, she believes it’ll be better for the “kiddos.”

“Who has the most pressing issue right now?” Hetherwick Goza asked the parents seated around her last month inside the church.

There is so much worry in the room. It rests on their shoulders and fills their voices.

How can they help their child when he refuses to be evaluated or balks at treatment? In Washington, by the age of 13, young people can refuse to receive mental health care and can refuse to share any medical information with their parents.

“Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost my child,” one woman said.

There are some situations that seem impossible. Hetherwick Goza jotted down a name. She will make some calls the next day to help a mother struggling with her adult son who seems to be spiraling out of control.

“I’ve spent my life making phone calls,” she said to the group.

The parents worry that their children won’t find their independence. What if they get hurt? What if they start using drugs again?

“As a parent and caregiver we can’t be there all the time. We cannot save them. I have to come to that realization every single day,” one mom said. “We all have to find ways to take care of ourselves so we can return to the family to take on the next day.”

They worry that their children will be stigmatized. Will a mental health diagnosis now limit their future?

There are hundreds of thousands of people living with mental illnesses who manage their symptoms and lead productive lives. Proper care and support can make all the difference, Hetherwick Goza said.

Some of the parents report that their children are stable and making great strides. One mom revealed that her teen had a panic attack the night before a school function. He got up the next morning and went anyway.

“It was the most courageous thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.

The parents find some solace and strength in the church with Hetherwick Goza.

“You are my saving grace,” one mom said.

Classes and assistance

Free six-week BASICS courses will be held Sept. 18 to Oct. 23 and April 9 to May 14, 2015. The Thursday classes meet from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 2936 Rockefeller Ave., Everett. To register, call Carolyn Hetherwick Goza at 425-347-5365, 425-301-6824 or email

A support group for parents and caregivers of adolescents living with mental illness meets at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month at the church.

People needing immediate help for mental health issues can call the Snohomish County Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Line at 425-258-4357.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; Twitter: @dianahefley

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