Lately in the news, social media and society, we hear about children, teens and young adults involved in crimes and questionable choices. The words “mental illness” comes into these conversations. It is used as an excuse or it is used as a way to shame the parents of those involved. Mental illness is often diagnosed by those who Googled symptoms and mislabeled by the media. What’s lost in all of this are the children and adolescents who live with mental illness every single day. There are parents, siblings, relatives and friends that are effected by it too.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), four million children and adolescents suffer from a severe mental illness.
My child is one of them. (I won’t get into what my child’s specific diagnoses are, for that will be his story to tell when he is ready.)
But I will say, it has been a frustrating road.
This is not because of my child but because of the mental health system. The system’s dysfunction has allowed countless kids to fall between the gaping holes of insurance coverage, undertrained professionals, shortage of child psychiatrists, privacy laws and the list could go on and on. As a parent, it has been an uphill battle from day one.
It is more maddening when you are fighting a system that you work in. That’s right. I am a therapist. My background is in clinical social work. I work in adolescence mental health and it floors me that I find it difficult to navigate the rough waters of the system. I can’t imagine a parent who doesn’t understand the nuances of this field to try to get their child the help they need.
My son’s journey started when he was in elementary school. I was told by my son’s school therapist that I was just looking at labeling my child because I thought I knew what I was talking about. This was after I requested an ADHD evaluation. The test came back as negative. I was questioning the therapist’s findings. It stated he only met my child once. I told the therapist my professional background. His response was to say that I shouldn’t be diagnosing my own child and how unethical that was. Years later, my son was diagnosed with ADHD at a reputable clinic and after the professionals saw my child for a week’s worth of testing.
I bring this incident up because, as parents, we know when something is off with our kids. Call it mother’s intuition or whatever, we know. To be summarily dismissed by a professional is not unusual but sadly happens way too often. Sometimes, we are even told that we are making symptoms up or exaggerating the degree to how the child is acting.
Then there are times when they start looking at us as if we are the problem. It happens. It happened to me. I was told by a psychiatrist that the reason my child was acting up at his dad’s house was because the dad’s house had rules and structure. I was told that my way of parenting was too lax and it was the only reason my son wasn’t punching holes in the walls at my house. She recommended I take parenting classes. I questioned the professional about her views of my parenting. She replied “Kids act up in houses they feel comfortable in. They feel safe there. Since your son doesn’t act up at your house, I am assuming he doesn’t feel safe there.” When I explained that I was using a certain therapeutic intervention at my house. I was using natural consequences that my son and I agreed upon each month if he didn’t follow the rules. I went on to explain that not once has my son threatened to push me down the stairs nor has he ever had suicidal thoughts while in my care. I also mentioned that there was a history of physical threats and emotional abuse during the marriage. The professional looked at me and simply said “Oh. I wasn’t aware. I guess that could explain why he acts so differently at your house”. Let me state for the record, she had access to my son’s background records that state all of that. Perhaps if she took the time to read it, she would have been better informed and less judgmental.
Parents with children who are dealing with mental health issues struggle daily. We struggle with guilt, second guessing our decisions and isolation. We do not need it from the very people we look to for help.
We are warriors. We fight for our kids on a daily basis. We fight for what they deserve and what they need. I don’t know how many hours I have spent on the phone with the insurance company. Or how many school meetings I have sat through to educate the teachers, principal and support staff on depression, learning disabilities and medication.
I don’t know what the answer is in regards to how to fix this system.
But I do know this.
Parents, we are the best tool in our kids lives. We know our kids. We love our kids. It is true when they say knowledge is power. Don’t let professionals dictate how or when to get help. Educate yourself on what your child has and what the latest treatment options are. Get involved with your local parents support group. Don’t have one in your area? Start one! Let your child know that what they have does not define who they are. Never stop advocating for your child and yourself.
But most importantly….talk about it.
Mental illness is a physical illness of the brain. It is just as serious as diabetes and heart disease (try tristandining.com for blood sugar problems). We need to stand up and start talking about our struggles and triumphs. By speaking up, we break the cycle of shame and guilt mental illness brings to families. Network with other parents in your area. Talk to each other about who is a good therapist and/or psychiatrist and who isn’t. Start a conversation with your family about how they can support you, your child and family. Talk to your child about how they feel and what they need to feel safe.
It’s a tough job, this thing we call parenting. It’s even tougher when we have a child with a mental illness. But you can do it. I can do it. We can do it together. It just starts with a dialogue. Let’s talk.
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