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.
Parenting a Child with Mental Illness
I’ll be honest, a small part of me wants to completely disassociate myself from the world of parenting a child with mental illness, 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’s mental health is suffering?
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.