Together, Philly mom and son cope with mental health issues

By Aileen Delgado and Julianne Hill

This article was published in the Philadelphia Tribune on March 29, 2022.

At two-and-a-half years old, Elijah Tillman was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder after getting expelled from day care. At 5, he experienced a traumatic episode, causing post-traumatic stress disorder. At 12, major depressive disorder was added to his list of diagnoses.

At the neighborhood school, Elijah would get into fights and leave the building out of frustration. Once, a security guard stopped Elijah from using the restroom, his mom said, and the encounter turned violent.

Benita Tillman and her 16-year-old son Elijah at their home in Philadelphia discuss his future and her hopes to keep him out of the school-to-prison pipeline. — Photo by Adrian Gibbons

“I worry for you,” Benita Tillman told her son during a recent interview. “You’re not on medication. What I’m concerned about is that you’re a Black fellow with three diagnoses, and you can get violent when you’re upset, and you don’t like people touching you.

“If you come across a police officer, and the police officer touches you, how will you react?” she asked Elijah.

Tillman’s worries are well-founded.

Black children are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than Hispanic or white students when school officials have discretion on how to respond, according to a study by the Justice Center, Council of State Governments. That means Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Black students, who account for about 16% of student enrollment, represent 27% of those referred to law enforcement and 31% of those subjected to a school-related arrest.

To reduce those risks, Tillman decided to move her son to a specialized school. He’s now at the High Road School of Philadelphia-Germantown, a school for kids with similar emotional and learning disabilities. With a low teacher-to-student ratio, it provides a therapeutic environment with personal attention.

But Elijah, now 16, said he’d rather not be there.

“I want to go to a regular school with classes that are more than just three kids,” he said. “We can’t talk to the other kids. If one kid is walking on one side of the hallway, we have to walk on the other side. We have to walk against the wall and then face the wall, so the other kids can go by.

“That sounds like a prison to me,” he added.

His mother was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when she was a teenager; the diagnosis changed to bipolar and anxiety disorder when she was in her 20s. Still, she said she failed to receive proper treatment and struggled for years.

“I think the hardest thing for me as a parent was to accept (that) my son had a diagnosis because I was diagnosed at 14 and I really didn’t take my mental health seriously until my son was diagnosed,” said Benita Tillman, a family facilitator for Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services and the city’s System of Care. “Once he was diagnosed I had to get myself together because I had to lead by example. That’s how I looked at it.”

A former elementary school teacher specializing in English for speakers of other languages, Benita Tillman fears her son could become another statistic in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Elijah said he stopped taking medication to treat his illnesses “because it made me feel weird.”

“It made me feel calm for a while, but it made me start feeling sad because I couldn’t do anything,” said Elijah. “Like, I just didn’t want to do anything.”

As a single mother raising a teen son, it has been a struggle, Benita Tillman said.

“Is it a fight? Yes, every day, but we get through it,” said Benita Tillman. “He’s got diagnoses, I’ve got diagnoses. When we fight — plus he’s a teenager — it’s like World War III up in my house.

“It’s not easy, but we get through it.”