Depression, anxiety, personality disorders, self harm, OCD, ADD, ADHD, addiction and suicide …….. These are just a selected few mental illnesses that are affecting our youth in ways that some will never be able to understand. Suicide is often the end of an illness that has caused suffering far more imaginable then one can express.
Being a parent of a child with mental illness you want to understand and learn what you can to better help your child, however many are often met with obstacles when trying to find the help we need for them.
On June 27th 2014, mental illness stole the life of our daughter Morgan. She was barely 13 and had suffered so much at the hands of others that her mental health had deteriorated to the point she felt her only relief was ending her life. Like many parents we were faced with wait lists and many refusing to see her due to her age. We did our best to keep her moods stable but without professional help we were fighting a losing battle.
Imagine as a child, someone who needs help hearing over and over again that you can’t see this person or that person and you have to wait weeks or in our case months to see someone. When you are already feeling worthless and helpless those words can make you feel even worse.
So how do we help when things become dire? As a parent who has spent the last 3 ½ years studying, researching and talking to others I have come to realize that while there are still many holes in our mental health care system, there are even more ways we can help our youth.
The number one thing I tell parents and those who are worried about the mental health of a youth is LISTEN! This does not mean just with what they say directly to you but what they post on social media, what they say to friends and what they say when they think nobody is listening. There are patterns that all will have, and yes if you look hard enough you can see it. We have the usual sleeping and eating changes, then we have the loss of interest in things they once enjoyed but we also have things like a change in how they dress, their overall mood and even things like a change in the music they listen to or people they hang around with.
Our first step is making sure our youth know they can talk to us or someone without judgement. Knowing you have someone you can tell anything to and that will help you understand what you are feeling or at least validate those feelings is a huge piece to the recovery process. We may not always know what to say but that is okay. As long as we do not react out of fear to what is being said or happening we can build a relationship of trust that allows open communication. NEVER say they are doing something for attention! If you think that way then I ask you this, What is going on in their lives that is so bad that they would harm themselves or say they want to kill themselves? Thoughts and behaviours like this are never attention seeking but a cry for help.
For us, we have learnt that while mental illness is scary it can be managed and recovery is realistic. The first line of help is always the family doctor, then a referral or call to the mental health clinic in your area ( in cases that involve a threat of suicide/self harm or an attempt you NEED to get to the ER). As parents we have to be an advocate for our children and teach them to be an advocate for themselves. I also love the idea of a safety plan for at risk youth. Sitting and doing a list of things that they can do to keep themselves busy or take their mind somewhere else is a huge part in healing. Music, sports, writing and reading are all things that can keep them busy and it focuses your mind on something else. We also tell them to make a list of 3 people to call if the list don’t work.
There are so many things we can be doing to help our youth that are dealing with mental illness. We know we need to have professionals in our recovery however so much of the time we are the ones who are left to figure out what works for each person. There is no clear cut plan or treatment for mental illness and that is where people with lived experiences need to come in and help fill those gaps. What works for one may not work for the other. What one person sees as a hobby/interest someone else may see as a challenge that further hurts their self confidence. Some things (like self harm) become a coping skill and then you have to teach them a healthy coping skill to replace the harmful way of coping. This takes time and will have relapses that will need to be talked about in a safe & positive way.
Mental health needs to be a part of our overall health. A doctor once told us “if our minds are not healthy then our bodies won’t be healthy”. Making mental health checks a normal part of our children’s, and our own, health care will break down the barriers and stigma around mental illness. It will also create a habit that they will carry with them into adulthood. By making sure our children are healthy mentally and emotionally then we will create a generation of resilient adults who are able to mentally and physically take on every obstacle that is put in their way. We will also create a generation who is accepting of those who are different and understanding of those who need help.
It is time we start building up our children mentally and emotionally. The first step in doing that is making sure their mental health is on track. Once that is done then everything else will fall into place. When it comes to mental health it takes a village/community to ensure they are accepted and getting the help/support they need.
Founder of Morgan’s Mission,