With Superhero Strength, Leo Defies Mental Health Stigmas

When Leo was 11, difficulty managing big emotions led to problems at home and in school. He found it challenging to follow directions, get along with his parents and siblings, and control feelings of frustration, confusion and anger. Through Lurie Children’s, he began working with a psychologist, Dr. John Parkhurst – and the two quickly formed a unique bond.  

“I’m a huge fan of comic books and superheroes and since Dr. Parkhurst was initially a stranger to me, I called him Dr. Strange,” Leo said. “Dr. Strange rolled with this and right away, I felt like it was easy for me to trust him.” 

Together, Dr. Parkhurst, Leo, and Leo’s family set goals and worked on a new way to describe his feelings and behaviors using superheroes. “We’d say that whenever I’m feeling frustrated or when I was rushing, my brain might be in Batman-mode,” Leo explained. “Whenever I’m cool, calm and collected, my brain might be in Bruce Wayne-mode.” 

Dr. Parkhurst directs the Mood, Anxiety, ADHD Collaborative Care (MAAC) Program at Lurie Children’s, serving children ages 6-18 years who have emerging mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression and ADHD.  

“Leo had symptoms of ADHD and, despite his obvious strengths, his behavior was impacting interactions with teachers, his learning, and communication with family,” Dr. Parkhurst said. “We worked on helping Leo identify that ADHD symptoms were not personal shortcomings, but that they could affect how a person moves through the world.”  

Leo and Dr. Parkhurst shared their story at a fundraising event for mental health services hosted by Lurie Children’s Founders’ Board in June 2023.

A shared understanding of how ADHD impacted Leo using superheroes allowed the duo to think creatively about his strengths, shape his behavior, and enhance his sense of self-awareness. Leo was able to teach his parents more about how his brain works, empowering them to better support him. He also showed positive improvement in communicating with his family and has increasingly navigated challenges by himself.  

“Before starting therapy, I never really talked about my challenges and I didn’t quite understand why certain things were harder for me,” he said. “Now that I better understand my own skill set, it’s easier to express myself. I continue to work on making the best choices for the future and present.” 

Timely interventions can help pave the way for healthier futures for youth, Dr. Parkhurst said. 

“Mental health needs impact families and at Lurie Children’s, we believe that we can have the greatest benefit for families if we address challenges early. This can shape the trajectory of young people into adulthood.” 

This summer, Leo began working his dream job at a skate park through After School Matters and prepared to begin high school with a newfound sense of confidence. It’s his wish that others will find messages of hope in his story. 

“I think it’s important that every kid who could benefit from mental health treatment can have it,” he said. “I also think that we have to make sure that everyone can talk about their needs. If you don’t talk about it, you may just continue to struggle. I’m lucky to have a family who supports me and now understands me better.”  

About Pediatric Psychiatry & Psychology
The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s is staffed and equipped to manage the complex care of children with concurrent medical and psychiatric treatment needs. Our specialists help many young patients overcome depression, anxiety and other psychological or behavioral concerns related to their serious medical illness, as well as those children with primary mental health issues.

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