Parents often complain about how hard it is to get their child to sleep through the night, toilet train, transition to a bottle or daycare, or give up napping. While all these tasks are difficult, there is one even harder – navigating the children’s mental health system.
When your child doesn’t seem to be fitting into the norm of childhood behaviours, you enter into the realm of mental health services. First there is the issue of what’s “wrong” with your child. Then there’s the question of how to get help. Then there’s the endless worry about whether this is the right help. Relapses happen. Children grow up and out of services. There are so many game changers for those in need of help. Parenting is not easy, and this is never truer than when you have a child with a mental illness.
Mental illness can affect anyone. It includes, but is not limited to, anxiety disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, depression, bipolar disorders. It does not discriminate – it affects all ages, all income levels, all education levels, both sexes, all cultures. There is a stigma to mental health issues that affects everyone, and makes it more difficult than it needs to be to get treatment, support, and acceptance.
As the parent of a child with mental health issues, I offer you 6 suggestions on how to survive in the face of what seems to be an impossible task – surviving your child’s mental illness.
I once heard a parent say that she wouldn’t have her child tested because she didn’t want him labelled. A diagnosis doesn’t define your child. It doesn’t make you love him or her any less. What it does do is open up services and allows you to learn about what your child needs and is experiencing. We paid to get testing done privately and it was very expensive but it allowed us to get onto service waitlists quicker, choose the right books to read, get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) created at school, and reach out to support groups. Your diagnosis might surprise you – don’t be afraid to challenge it, but keep an open mind to whatever you are told.
Be prepared to wait. And wait. And wait. We have been on waitlists that were over two years. We have waited months for referrals. We have waited and waited…but don’t wait patiently. Call often, and call around. Check out any coverage your benefits may provide and use it while you wait. Call any agencies you are on the waitlist for to see if your child’s name has come up, if they have added any new services you can access, or if they have had any changes to policies. If you have any concerns about your child’s functioning, get on the wait list immediately – you can always pass up services if you don’t need them later, and some services, like early child intervention services, are only available up to a certain age. Consider going outside your region for services, as other areas may have shorter waitlists. And ask questions – if you ask every provider what other services are available, you might stumble upon the service you need! One hospital worker told me that Ontario’s mental health services are the most disjointed and worst to navigate. I cannot disagree.
Attend seminars when you can. Many mental health organizations offer free seminars to educate the public, and if you take away just one valuable piece of information, it was worth the time to attend. The York Centre, in Richmond Hill, has historically had a week of seminars about a variety of topics. It was there that we learned a valuable analogy of what living with anxiety is like: every single thing you ask a child to do is like asking them to get into a cage with a tiger. Sometimes the tiger is huge, sometimes you’re locking the cage shut, sometimes the tiger is actually a kitten and there are no bars on the cage – but you never know how solid that cage will be, of how big that tiger will be for a child with anxiety. After hearing that, from a well-known, respected centre dedicated to working with children, we had a new understanding of what our child was living with. All it took was one evening to finally get it.
Therapies and therapists are a dime a dozen, but you need to make sure you’re getting your child the right type of services. Don’t be afraid to try anything (within reason!) but be sure to advocate for your child; you need to give anything time to work, but if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. We worked with one therapist for a couple of months who told us that under no circumstances were we to praise or encourage our child; we could hardly talk to him, we were so accustomed to enforcing good behaviour through praise. Compare that to the person we ended up working with for over a year, Shilagh, who made all the difference in our lives; she always checked back in with us after every suggestion she made to ask if that felt right for our family, was that logical to try, did we agree, what worked and what didn’t and how it impacted all of us. Great therapy works with the child and the rest of the family, because it really is about all of you. Therapy gets you out of your current patterns, but the new patterns need to make sense and jive with your beliefs in order for them to be implemented and have a lasting impact.
Connection & care
There is a support group out there for anything and everything, and this holds true for children’s mental health issues. Find a support group, open up to your friends or family (just not the judgmental ones!) and have a support person. Just like they tell new parents to take some time for themselves, dealing with your child’s mental health issue really is taxing and you need to care for yourself. Give yourself a break, connect with someone, find a way to relax or you’ll end up with issues of your own! And don’t forget about your other children – this is taxing on siblings as well, and they need support, understanding and attention too.
This one is highly controversial. Many people refuse to give medication(s) to a child, some beg for a pill to help their child. Do what feels right to you. But I offer a few pieces of advice – know what you’re getting into; some medications cannot be stopped without being weaned off. Some medications have natural or herbal options that you may want to try first. You may need to get your child on medications in order to get them other help. As one doctor said to us, you wouldn’t deny your child diabetic medicine. True, but I’d want to have proof they had diabetes first, and most mental illnesses don’t come with hard and fast testing results, so it does come down to personal beliefs, comfort and a choice.
Mental illness is not a race to be completed. Be patient. It takes time to change habits, thinking and reactions. Be patient. It is hard to watch anyone you love suffer, especially a child. Be patient with your child, your chosen treatment, any medications, yourself, and all members of your family. Your child needs you to be their rock now more than ever. Do not be content to sit and wait for change, but be patient.
I liken working through a mental illness to being on a roller coaster – sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, sometimes it’s a steep climb, sometimes it comes crashing down, but in the end, all the effort you put into helping your child will be rewarded. They will have a better future if you invest in their mental health now. And you’ll have a happier family life if they are functioning well. And be kind to the parent in the parking lot who’s struggling with their child – you never know what they’re dealing with…it might just be the kind word of a stranger, or an understanding smile that starts to remove the stigma that so many of us are living under.