The recent suicide of well-loved actor Robin Williams reminds us of the fragility of life and the inescapable reality of mental illness. Adults and children alike struggle with depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, and a host of other diagnoses every day.
Unfortunately, society often shames and disregards those struggling with mental illness. It’s easier to deny there’s a problem than confront it and seek support. But mental illness shouldn’t go unnoticed.
The National Institute of Mental Health says, “Mental disorders are common among children in the United States, and can be particularly difficult for the children themselves and their caregivers. Just over 20 percent (or one in five) children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.”
I was devastated when my oldest daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at 6 years old. Accepting the reality that she needed medication to control her behavior created feelings of failure for me as a parent. But through education, professional help, and other means of support, we managed to help her through her elementary and teen years and put her on the path to emotional wellness.
If you suspect your child is suffering from mental illness, don’t wait to seek assistance. Denial doesn’t make it go away. Here are a few tips on what to do:
Seek professional help while educating yourself. Start with your child’s pediatrician and ask questions about behavior that seems unusual. Learn all you can. You don’t have to have a medical background to begin to understand mental illness. You know your child better than anyone and can offer valuable insight to medical professionals.
I was first told my daughter had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but I suspected something different. As I continued to inform her doctor of her symptoms, the correct diagnosis emerged, which led to appropriate help.
Let go of your guilt. It’s not your fault. Parents of children with mental illness are quick to blame themselves and hide in shame, but there’s no reason to take responsibility for a biologically based mental illness. Don’t feel guilty that your child behaves differently than your neighbor’s child. Good parenting doesn’t solve mental illness.
Break the silence. Talk with school officials, other parents, and appropriate leaders to improve the situation for your child. Find a support group of parents coping with mental illness. Make an intentional choice to not hide in shame.
Don’t let it destroy your family. Support one another. Unite together as a team, educating other children in the family of the illness while being sensitive to your child’s feelings about the diagnosis. Don’t allow siblings to demoralize or make fun of their behavior. Help your other children understand their sibling cannot always control his or her behavior. In addition, stay calm in the face of danger or unusual behavior.
Let your child know you love him and will always be there for him. Children with mental illness need more reassurance than other children. They need to feel loved and understood, even on days when their behavior spirals out of control. Make your home a safe place and encourage your child to ask questions and express his feelings. We were careful to avoid situations that might cause anxiety for our daughter such as leaving her alone or placing her in a vulnerable situation.
Keep an open mind about solutions. Don’t dismiss an alternative without exploring it. Stay educated about ongoing research to determine the latest methods of treatment. Seek others’ opinions on available options and try different methods.
I was resistant to medicating my daughter in the beginning, but her psychiatrist helped me recognize that counseling alone wasn’t enough due to her heightened emotions. After several months of counseling, she learned how to manage her anxiety and was able to come off the medication a few years later.
• • •
The impact of mental illness in children cannot be denied; but with the proper tools and education, more children can get the help they need to overcome its devastating effects and lead productive lives. A mental illness diagnosis doesn’t mean your child will never lead a normal life. I’m thankful to report my daughter recently graduated from college with an early childhood education degree and is excited about her next chapter in life as a role model for children struggling with issues she has learned to overcome.
Gayla Grace holds a master’s degree in psychology and counseling and, as a freelance writer and mom to five children, is passionate about educating parents on mental health.
Mental health organizations
National Institute of Mental Health: www.nimh.nin.gov
Mental Health America: www.mentalhealthamerica.net
National Alliance on Mental Illness: www.nami.org
National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery: ncmhr.org
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: www.samhsa.gov