You've probably seen failed exams and missed curfews, yelling and tears, tickets and fines, community service and jail time. But you've also likely seen the sideways looks of accusatory blame, sighs of exhaustion, curled lips of exasperation, and backs – lots and lots of turned backs.
The sad truth is that parents of children with mental health issues often do not receive the emotional support they need from family and friends. In fact, the phone may fall silent, invitations may disappear, and conversation can become trivial. It's possible friends or family may even attack you with implied or outright blame for your child's emotional or behavioral problems.
When your child is diagnosed with a mental health issue like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, schizophrenia, or disruptive emotional or behavioral issues, you may feel like the bottom has fallen out of your world. First, you worry about your child and his or her future. Then you may worry about financial issues due to doctor's visits, legal fees, restitution, or medication. But you may also feel guilt or embarrassment about your child's and family's problems, and you may try to hide those issues from others to protect yourself, your family, and your child from further humiliation.
In reality, friends and family are likely aware of what's been happening with you, your child, and your family, but they may not know what to say or do to help. The result is that nobody talks about the problems you are facing, and everyone feels isolated. Consequently, desperately needed support is neither offered nor received.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says the first step to correcting this problem is to get an accurate diagnosis of your child's mental health issues and to talk about your problems with your child's doctor, school, mental health professional, and other families. There are many resources out there to help you. It's important to know you are not alone.
An article in Psychology Today suggests you initiate a conversation with your family and friends by discussing your own feelings about the situation. Let them know your concerns. Explain the mental health issues your child is facing. If friends and family have difficulty understanding, help them by comparing your child's mental health issue to a physical ailment, or offer them some resources for information. These conversations can feel awkward at first, but getting things out in the open is the fastest way to understanding.
When you speak with family and friends, listen carefully and watch their physical reactions. You may notice discomfort. Understand that people don't normally talk about mental health, and it can seem scary. There are many untrue and frightening stereotypes surrounding mental illness. Even the language often used helps perpetuate the fear. Terms like “psycho,” “wacko,” “schizo,” “crazy” seem to define the person, rather than the illness. News stories can inaccurately create a connection between conditions like depression or ADHD with aggression in people's minds.
When you speak with friends and family, acknowledge that your child's and family's situation is challenging, but remind them that, with time and treatment, your child will get better. Discuss ways they can help you. Even better, tell them what you need.
Ask family to listen. Invite a friend to lunch. Request that your sister join you for a learning session about mental health. If you are exhausted and need a night away from the home to rest, ask your parents to sit with your other children. Request a ride to a lawyer's or doctor's appointment, so you don't have to worry about parking.
Above all, remember that mental health issues are very common. A Factsheet on Mental Illness published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that “1 in 4 adults−approximately 61.5 million Americans−experiences mental illness in any given year. Approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year, and one-half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 24.”
Talking is the only way to bring mental health issues out of the shadows. Shine a light on mental health issues, and you'll likely be surprised to learn how many others have experienced similar challenges.
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Gaining Support When You Have a Troubled Adult Child,
Supporting a Friend or Family Member with Mental Health Issues
How to Talk about Mental Illness
National Alliance on Mental Illness Factsheet