Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

Warning: some readers may find the content of this post uncomfortable or triggering.

My eldest daughter turns 18 tomorrow.

That sentence needs a paragraph all of its own, partly because I do not feel old enough to have an adult child in the home (does any parent?) but mostly because there have been times over the last three years when I didn’t think we would be celebrating her 18th birthday. Why? Because I wasn’t sure she would even be here.

Since the age of 14 (she would almost certainly say younger but this was the first time it was brought to my attention) she has struggled with mental health issues. Her 16th and 17th birthdays were both shrouded in a cloud of depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and emotional trauma.

After three years in the system, she was discharged from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) a few weeks ago. Last week her provisional driving licence finally arrived (after a year-long fight to get her deemed ‘fit to drive’). It really does feel like we are seeing the light at the end of a very long, very black tunnel.

beautiful sunset

As a result, a small part of me wants to completely disassociate myself from the world of teenage mental health that we were unwittingly thrust into all those years ago. My memory would prefer to erase those dark days when the future looked so bleak and trips to A&E were a regular occurrence.

However I can’t ignore the fact that May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US and 14th-20th May is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK and I know that right now there will be other parents out there battling the system, feeling helpless and fearing for the future. Parents that I hope will find solace in knowing that someone else has walked the path that they have found themselves on.

I’m no expert in mental health conditions, neither am I a child psychologist but I am a parent who has watched their child suffer. If I can help to minimise the stress for someone else who might be in a similar situation or has concerns over their teenager, then I will.

When is it more than just teenage hormones?

By nature (thank you hormones) teenagers are moody, tired, irritable, explosive, fickle and will retreat to their bedrooms at the first opportunity. It is therefore incredibly difficult to distinguish between normal teenage behaviour and the beginnings of a mental health condition.

I first became concerned when I noticed unexplainable cuts/scratches and disordered eating patterns. Over the following few months she began avoiding social situations, was slowly losing interest in things that she used to love and had become uncharacteristically secretive over her phone. Visually she had lost a lot of weight and looked tired and gaunt, even after a full night’s sleep.

During her GCSE year, we received a few emails from school informing us of unusually disruptive behaviour in class and that she wasn’t on target to achieve those A* grades that she had been predicted.

This all happened gradually over the course of about 12-18 months.

Of course we now know that these are all classic signs of someone struggling with their mental health.

What should I do if I think my child is struggling?

My daughter is fiercely independent and whilst that can be an enviable quality, when she was unwell, this trait became her own worst enemy. We tried to talk to her about it on many occasions but we hit a brick wall every time.

Reluctant to share her struggles or admit to needing help, she became severely anxious and depressed, leading to suicidal thoughts on a daily basis. For her, help was ‘too little too late’.

This doesn’t need to be the case! If your child won’t talk but you still have concerns, I would recommend the following:

1) Trust your instinct. You’ve known your child forever and that makes you an expert where they are concerned. For a long time, both the school and other well-meaning individuals said that it was probably just a phase that she would grow out of. Our instincts told us otherwise.

2) Contact your GP and if you find they are not very understanding, go in search of one who is! Your child will more than likely be put on the waiting list for CAMHS (can be up to 2 years in some boroughs) but you may well be offered alternative options (many boroughs have free youth counselling services that you can refer your child to).

3) Talk to your child’s school. Thankfully most schools now offer a counselling service to children who are struggling.

4) Medication such as anti-depressants can only be prescribed by a psychiatrist for children under the age of 18. If you feel medication might be beneficial then you can request an appointment with an independent psychiatrist. Unfortunately this does cost money but had we been better informed, we would have pursued this avenue.

5) Let them know you are available to listen at any time, should they want to talk. My daughter would often text during really difficult times, rather than talk face to face – respect that and follow their lead.

Why my child?

This is a question we asked ourselves time and time again. There were a whole heap of others that ran through our minds night and day:

Did we do something wrong? Were we too strict? Did we put pressure on her to succeed? Should we have sent her to a different school? Are we the problem? 

It took us a very long time to accept that whilst we might do some things differently if we had our time again, we are who we are and she is who she is.

Wrestling with these questions 24/7 was not helpful for her or us and believe it or not, we came up with no answers! Instead it led us to blaming ourselves and losing confidence in our ability to parent.

We had to eventually accept that sometimes there is no ‘reason why’ just  like with any other illness.

Where can I find support as a parent?

Sadly, there is very little support out there for parents and it is a frightening and lonely path to walk, hence my reason for writing this post today.

My child was in hospital for 6 months and during that time I found it hard to be around peers with seemingly ‘normal’ teenagers doing ‘normal’ things such as celebrating exam results, learning to drive and applying for universities.

What I found helpful, was seeking out others who were going through or had been through, the same ordeal. I needed to hear from people who understood exactly what we were going through and offered no judgement.

I sought out a lot of online support in the form of forums and Facebook groups as well as turning to various websites with expertise in this area – Young Minds offers an invaluable helpline for parents.

Does it get better?

Whilst I am acutely aware that there are many stories that do not have a happy ending, I want you to know that there are so many more that do.

It’s two years ago now, since my daughter was admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit and although it’s been a very up and down journey, what a different place we are in today! She has a job working with horses, her zest for life has returned and we are all looking forward to celebrating her 18th birthday tomorrow. If she needs to be on anti-depressants for the rest of her life, then so be it.

Hang in there, you and your child can get through this.

If you know a teenager who is struggling, there are many charities who offer advice and support to parents as well as the young person: Young Minds, PAPYRUS, Childline, Samaritans.

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46 Comments

  1. Leslea Petersen
    May 7, 2018 / 8:09 am

    Beautiful,honest and raw and will share this so others might read it and receive hooe. Have a fabulous day celebrating your gorgeous girl. Much love, Leslea ❤️

    • May 8, 2018 / 5:24 pm

      Thank you Leslea. It’s been a long and tough journey. I do hope and pray that we are out the other side for good. xx

  2. Jill
    May 7, 2018 / 8:26 am

    As your parents we feel we have walked this path with you, even though I know you have shielded us from some of the most frightening aspects. You couldn’t have done more than you have for her and we admire you both so much .

    • May 8, 2018 / 5:25 pm

      Thank you for your support, as always. We know you would have been there in the tough moments but sometimes we just didn’t have the energy. Onwards and upwards, eh? xx

  3. Sue Ranger
    May 7, 2018 / 8:28 am

    Well said Suzanne, there is so much freedom in giving words and space for this, the more information parents have the better for them and their children xx

    • May 8, 2018 / 5:12 pm

      I really do believe that there’s such power in sharing our stories. I won’t pretend that I don’t feel a little vulnerable at times but I don’t think that’s a reason to stay quiet. xx

  4. May 7, 2018 / 9:22 am

    Well done, this post must be so helpful to families coping with similar issues and I’m very glad for all of you that you’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel xx

    • May 12, 2018 / 3:43 pm

      Thank you Cathy, you’ve been such an online supporter. I wanted to update people who’ve walked this journey with me. xx

  5. Emma
    May 7, 2018 / 9:43 am

    As always Suzanne, your ability to share these experiences is so valuable. Wishing your whole family a lovely celebration tomorrow. Xx

    • May 8, 2018 / 5:13 pm

      Thank you so much Emma. We are looking forward to celebrating. xx

  6. Jonathan Carter
    May 7, 2018 / 9:47 am

    This is a wonderful, honest, heartfelt, and hopeful post. Thankyou so much. In our arrogance and pride we sometimes think there must be a reason and someone to blame. For smug middle class people like ourselves we imagine mental illness in a child is the result of poverty and bad parenting. When it hits wonderful successful parents like yourselves all our prejudices get knocked out of shape. Your post will be a great blessing to many and I am grateful for the skills you have in articulating the journey so well.

    • May 8, 2018 / 5:16 pm

      I hope it will help others, Jonathan. I must admit that there was an element of pride in there that soon got knocked out of us when this hit. I think searching for blame is part of our modern-day culture too. Thank you for reading and for your encouragement.

  7. Ian Bald
    May 7, 2018 / 10:04 am

    Dad here – a brave and honest account of your journey dear. A great help in many ways. Whilst the events were developing over the four years, we saw how you & Jeff managed to also keep the whole family together and involved. A great achievement thus far, with the help of many along the way. Have a great time on the 18th evening together.

    • May 12, 2018 / 3:44 pm

      Yes, we have been hugely blessed to have a good team of people around us. I hope that this will help somebody somewhere who needs to read it. xx

  8. May 7, 2018 / 10:23 am

    You had me in tears right from the start there. What a tough time you’ve all had and I’m so glad things have turned round for you now. This is such an important post to share and I will remember to check back in future if I ever I start to become concerned about any of my kids. Thanks for sharing.
    Hope your girl has a brilliant birthday. x

    • May 12, 2018 / 3:44 pm

      One of the things I wanted to do was update all the people who’ve walked this journey online with us over the years, you being one of them. Thank you for your continued support. xx

  9. May 7, 2018 / 10:54 am

    Suzanne,

    Another courageous post on MH. You were right not to give us a sanitised version of your experiences, because that wouldn’t have been as helpful as what you have written here. Your father made a good point: in these very difficult situations, it’s important not to lose focus on the other members of the family — and of course that’s much easier said than done. You surely deserve a lot of the credit for your daughter having made so much progress.

    • May 8, 2018 / 5:17 pm

      You’re very kind. I think in these circumstances, we all just instinctively do what we can to get through. It hasn’t been easy on us as a family but we are no longer treading on eggshells and that is massive progress!

  10. Liz Smith
    May 7, 2018 / 1:16 pm

    Well said. It will help parents who can not even see through the darkness of depression and mental illness.. she is a lovely, beautiful inside and outside daughter, and as you so rightly say, even if she stays on anti depressants for her life what does that matter. We need to remove the stigma of taking anti depressants and remember this is an illness like any other.

  11. Jackie
    May 7, 2018 / 11:23 pm

    What a fabulous post. A huge thank you to you and your daughter for sharing this. It will help a lot of people. Xx

    • May 8, 2018 / 5:23 pm

      I hope so, Jackie. I always feel a bit vulnerable after sharing our story but I do feel quite strongly that this is real power in being honest. Thank you for reading and for your encouragement.

  12. May 8, 2018 / 10:47 am

    Such a honest and heartfelt post Suzanne. I’m sure this has done a lot to help others suffering in the same way. So glad to hear your daughter is doing better now and enjoying life. Hope you all have a wonderful time together celebrating her 18th xx

  13. May 8, 2018 / 3:25 pm

    Thank you for this lovely Suzanne, you’ll be helping countless other parents with your honest words xxx

  14. Caroline
    May 8, 2018 / 5:16 pm

    Fabulous post and thank you for sharing. I’m so pleased that your daughter is in a better place. An amazing girl with amazing parents. Happy 18th celebrations!! 🎂💕xx

  15. May 8, 2018 / 8:51 pm

    Well done Suzanne, such a great post and I’m so pleased your daughter is doing well xx

  16. May 8, 2018 / 8:57 pm

    I had a tear in my eye reading this post from start to finish Suzanne, and I can’t imagine what you have all gone through over the past few years. I am so glad that your daughter is leading a normal teenage life now, after battling for so long, and I wish her the happiest birthday. I totally agree with you that there is limited support for parents. My son went through a terrible period from about 11 years to 13, took us ages to see somebody who totally understood what we were going through, and thankfully gave us the support we all needed. I honestly think that what he went through has shaped him to be the person who he is today. Thank you for being so honest Susanne x

  17. May 8, 2018 / 9:36 pm

    Amazing post, well done for raising awareness and letting people know that there is a way through it. I’m so glad to see that your daughter has regained her zest for life and has a job doing something she loves. After all you have been through, it must be wonderful to see.
    Nat.x

  18. May 8, 2018 / 10:51 pm

    This is a superb post. Of utmost importance and full of bravery and love. I have shared it on my FB page (halfwavinghalfdrowning) and already many of the readers have shown real appreciation that you have shared this.
    Sending you and your daughter loads of wishes for the happiness ahead and the strength to keep facing the waves when they come.

  19. May 9, 2018 / 2:00 am

    That is such good news with her provisional driving licence. unfortunately there isn’t a lot, if any, support out there for parents of a child or young adult, I know our doctors gave no support and I felt like my requests in asking for help were me attention seeking and was made to feel like that asking for support was interfering in my child’s life. I understand the confidentiality etc but when you’re the parent on constant watch all you want to do is be able to help, knowing something is wrong is a natural response as a parent but like you say we’re not all experts in psychology and mental health to know what to do. I hope your journey continues to be a positive one #tweensteensbeyond

  20. May 9, 2018 / 6:48 am

    Thank you for sharing. I’m so glad your daughter is coming to the light at the end of that tunnel. As someone who has struggled with my mental health from my teen years on, who wishes the world had understood better then, I get it. I’m glad she’s got you although I know it must have been incredibly stressful and hard to parent her, through this, looking back at my own time. It’s not easy. This bit of parenting isn’t mentioned in the books and our kids can be very vulnerable and easily lost in a system that has a lot of broken bits! Well done to her on her driving licence too!

    #tweensteensbeyond

  21. Suzanne
    May 9, 2018 / 9:19 am

    As the mother of a daughter that turned 16 last week in an Adolescent Mental Health Unit (and celebrated her 15th birthday last year in a different unit) your words left me in tears but has given me hope that maybe we will be able to celebrate her 17th or 18th birthday at home or at least be able to celebrate these birthdays! When your world is surrounded with other adolescents struggling with their mental health it is hard to stay positive and believe that your child will one day be well enough to enjoy a normal life, so thank you.
    I hope your daughter had a fantastic birthday yesterday. I can imagine just how happy you are at this point and I do hope that all of us parents going through the same issues will get to this point too.

    Thank you

    Suzanne (yes, another one!)

    Suzanne

    • May 12, 2018 / 3:49 pm

      Thank you so much for writing this Suzanne. When I was in your situation not so long ago, I needed to read a positive story to give me hope in the darkest times. My daughter’s 16th and 17th birthdays both closely followed a suicide attempt and we felt much like you do. I honestly couldn’t ever imagine her being better or where we are today. There is hope, try to hang on to that. xx

  22. Kathryn
    May 10, 2018 / 12:07 am

    Thank you for sharing the detail of your journey. Inspiring, heart wrenching, hopeful encouragement to a mummy who looks in the future at the possibility of this and chooses faith over fear.

  23. Jade
    May 11, 2018 / 8:06 am

    I spent several years in an adolescent unit, struggling with depression, anxiety, CPTSD, self harm and eating disorders to name a few issues.
    Several suicide attempts, disruptive behaviour and failed at school, I was very nearly expelled, but my parents fought so hard to keep me in just to do my art exams.
    Why am I telling you this? Because there is hope. I have recently been diagnosed with BPD, which initially made me feel like a failure, but I am learning how strong I am, and how rich my experiences are. I am grateful for so many things, I appreciate life so much more deeply than many others because I have faced the darkest places, but I survived.
    I eventually went back to college when I was ready and exceeded with distinctions across the board, and got accepted onto the degree course I wanted.
    I have seen many of the people I was in therapy with over the years to through their journeys in different stages, some who I was convinced could never recover have turned their lives around and are happy and strong, some who still struggle from time to time, but are equipped with skills to recognise when they are struggling and learnt to seek help before it comes too much.
    I never used to be open about my struggles, but I feel God has put it on my heart to be open, and show others compassion and support, to help others understand more about mental health, how to help those who are struggling.
    Thank you for sharing this post, it takes a lot of courage to do so.

    • May 12, 2018 / 3:50 pm

      And thank you Jade for sharing your story because it just adds weight to mine. What a powerful journey you have been on and I’m so glad that things turned around for you. I know that it’s hard work so well done! And well done too for being brave enough to speak out, it is important and I’m sure will help many people over the years.

  24. May 11, 2018 / 8:22 am

    This is a brilliant post Suzanne and I’m so glad you shared it. It is exactly what parents who are just starting out (or who are in the middle) of a mental health journey need to read. I’m so delighted that things are more positive for your daughter now and wish her all the very best for her future – including the driving. Thanks so much for sharing such an important message at #TweensTeensBeyond

  25. May 11, 2018 / 11:29 am

    Delighted to hear that your daughter has come through, so lovely to read. Thanks for your bravery in sharing – and honesty. None of us know what is around the corner and I totally understand what a lonely and terrifying journey you have been part of. Hats off to you and your family because you have shown such strength and dignity through the last few years. You will of course have been incredibly instrumental in the recovery too. I have every admiration for you Suzanne. Thanks for sharing this with us at #tweensteensbeyond

  26. May 14, 2018 / 2:14 pm

    I want to say thank you for sharing this so openly Suzanne. I’m sure it will be helpful and a comfort to so many parents going down a similar path with their child x

  27. May 14, 2018 / 3:30 pm

    Suzanne this is such a touching story not only of sadness at what has been but of hope for the future. I feel humbled by your honesty and like every other parent reading this am thankful to you for sharing your experiences and giving clear advice on the markers to look out for. My daughter is receiving counselling at school at the moment on the back of my recent illness. When she asked me if I would be ok for her to make an appointment to see someone I remember filling up with anxiety and pride. The former at where the path would take her and us and the latter that at 14 she was mature enough and brave enough to stick her hand up and say I need help. The more open we are as a society about these issues the easier I hope it will become for those in need of help and support to receive it. It is her 15th birthday this week and never has Mental Health Awareness Week been more relevant for us as a family. I hope you all enjoyed a fabulous day of celebrations – 18 is a big number! Wishing you all love and hope for the future. #TweensTeensBeyond

  28. May 14, 2018 / 4:27 pm

    Such a beautifully written post Suzanne. I simply cannot imagine what you have all been through as a family, but also your daughter. Why do things need to be so difficult for these delicate souls we bring into the world. I really do hope you are starting to see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Love to you and yours x x

  29. May 14, 2018 / 6:24 pm

    Beautifully written. Mental health is so misunderstood. As someone who has gone through this starting at 13 (I’m now 44) and who’s son is 11 and currently going through this all I can say is it can get better. Mental illness I find is very common if people are willing to admit it. I had to stay off some of the mental health support groups as many parents still treat it as a character flaw. It isn’t. Or worse, they think that some lavender will fix everything. If lavender can fix this it would be worth a million dollars a bundle. It is a disease, and it effects everyone differently. I hope that your post as well as others will help people come to terms with these horrible diseases.

  30. May 15, 2018 / 8:21 am

    Oh Suzanne, I’m so glad that your daughter is feeling better now. I used to be in her position – depression, anxiety, disordered eating, trips to A&E, and a period of being in hospital and it is such a scary, dark place to be. It was finding a therapist that I really connected with and trusted that got me through it and whilst I still have anxious/depressive moments, I now know how to manage them and get myself back on track – it’s not easy but it is possible. Your daughter will have so much strength and resilience as a result of everything she’s been through and coupled with the love and support from you and the rest of her family, she’ll be ok. Sending love to you all.

    • May 16, 2018 / 4:20 pm

      I had no idea Chloe, but had noticed how understanding you are and of course you’re a therapist too which makes total sense. Thank you for being so honest. I think when you’ve fallen to the depths of despair once, you are more aware of it happening again and in tune with your own mind. I would love to talk to you more about this sometime. xx

  31. May 16, 2018 / 2:46 pm

    I remember talking to you about this a few years ago, when you were in the middle of it all. I’m so please to read that she is now feeling so much better and that you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Talking to you that day, knowing I had three daughters of my own really made me think -and am now very aware of their feelings, self-confidence and stress levels. Thank you of sharing your story and helping others going through anything similar.

    • May 16, 2018 / 4:21 pm

      Thank you Heledd, I remember chatting to you too. It’s been a long hard slog but she really is SO much better. I think it’s important for us just to be aware and on the look out as they grow up. We were honestly clueless and if this journey has taught us anything, it’s that no one is exempt. You can treat them all the same way and one might fall prey. There really is no telling. xx

  32. Jackie H
    May 16, 2018 / 11:11 pm

    Suzanne, I’m so proud of you guys. When you first started going through this I wasn’t in the best place myself and found it hard to choose what to say & what not to say. I so hope this post becomes your most read ever because everyone needs support when they enter this strange underworld. I’m really grateful for your friendship which grew through this season and I LOVE that you are using your hard times to help others. The driving licence news is fantastic! Lots of love to you all xxx

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