When It’s Your Child

When a child has a parent with mental health issues, it can impact every area of his/her life.  Although it was extremely difficult growing up with a mother who had a severe mental illness, it was all I had ever known and eventually I learned ways to survive and cope (albeit sometimes not in healthy ways).  While some children in this situation are not as fortunate to have the support I had and are left with residual emotional and physical scars, I was able to overcome the obstacles I faced and develop a healthier lifestyle once outside of that environment.   There were many experiences I never got to share with my mom because of her illness, but I mostly regret not being able to do more to help her with the challenges she faced.

It is never easy when a parent is impaired by a mental illness, but what about when a child faces a  mental health issue?  This turned out to be the next challenge I would face and was much more difficult to handle on an emotional level.  One never likes to see a loved one suffer, but it is most painful when it is one’s own child.

There were times during my daughter’s adolescence when she experienced depression, but with counseling she was able to bounce back and manage well enough to earn an athletic scholarship to a division 1 college.  I felt confident that she was in good health and supported her decision to go to school in another state.  By the end of her sophomore year she was under extreme pressure and started to feel rundown.  The training and competitiveness of the team had become increasingly intense, she was working and maintaining a 3.5 GPA, and not able to come home during the summers due to training.  These stressors along with the unexpected death of a close uncle led to symptoms of depression and ultimately resulted in  the development of an eating disorder as well.

As her parent, it is natural to wonder what I could have done differently to prevent her from having to go through this.  It is not uncommon for parents to blame themselves when their children encounter emotional problems.  Logically I know there are many factors that contribute to mental health issues such as heredity, environmental stressors, and personality traits, and certainly one’s upbringing has an effect as well.  Nonetheless, when I maintain the belief that my parenting was what led to these issues, then I am also able to maintain the erroneous belief that I am somehow in control of the situation.  In reality, when I am thinking clearly, I know that it is more important to provide emotional support and practical guidance rather than to become weighted down with guilt.   I’ve also learned that maintaining my own health and emotional stability is the best example I can provide to my child, especially as she enters adulthood.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there are so many resources available to help my daughter get through this experience and grow stronger.  I’m proud of the way she has faced this challenge and her willingness to take the necessary steps towards stability and recovery.  I’m grateful for my family who has been so supportive and helpful as well.   It means a lot to know that we are there for each other as we make this journey together.

Today children and young adults are exposed to a multitude of situations that they are ill-equipped to handle, and this can lead to a variety of emotional and mental health issues.   It is sometimes difficult to discern what is part of the normal angst of youth versus issues that may need professional help.   I have learned over time to trust my instincts and that it is better to address issues early than to wait in the hopes that they will improve with time.   As the article below illustrates, if anything, most children who experience mental and emotional problems are not receiving the mental health support they need.

The excerpt below is from the CDC website on Mental Health:

Even though most American children and youth experience normal, health development, approximately 6 to 9 million have serious emotional disturbances.1 Research shows that one of five children and adolescents aged 9 to 17 years experience symptoms of mental health problems that cause some level of impairment in a given year.2 However, fewer than 20 percent who need mental health service receive them.3

Estimates of spending for behavioral health services for children and youth conservatively range from $11.7 Billion to $14.07 billion.4,5 Left untreated, mental health disorders in children and adolescents lead to higher rates of suicide, violence, school dropout, family dysfunction, juvenile incarcerations, alcohol and other drug use, and unintentional injuries. Schools can play a vital role in creating safe, nurturing school environments and providing care to students with emotional or behavioral problems. According to the School Health Policy and Programs Study of 2006, 77.9% of schools have a part-time or full-time guidance counselor, 61.4% have a part-time or full-time psychologist, and 41.7% have a part-time or full-time social worker.6

I recently began volunteering with a parent group who provides emotional support to parents whose children are experiencing mental health crises.  Often parents feel alone and in an effort to protect their child from being stigmatized are forced to deal with this in silence.  What they need most is someone to listen without judgment or dispensing advice.  They want reassurance that their voice is being heard, and I often remind them of the important step they have taken in seeking help and advocating for their children.  I’m happy to be a part of this worthwhile cause, which has helped me grow as well.

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