I have never suffered from depression, or lived with someone who has. So, when Nora first fell ill, I wasn’t equipped to help her. I did my best, but I made a lot of mistakes along the way.
Over the last six months, I’ve learned a huge amount about mental illness in general, and depression in particular. Through trial and error, I have gained some understanding of the practical ways a parent can support a child who is suffering from depression.
Here are my top five tips for parenting a depressed child. I hope they help.
Supporting your depressed child is exhausting, time consuming and deeply distressing. When Nora first fell ill, I stupidly thought it might help if she knew how upset I was. As if this might, somehow, reverse the course of her illness and bring back the happy, confident girl she used to be.
I realise now how ridiculous this was. Depression isn’t something its sufferers can ‘control.’ It’s a real illness, that leaves you feeling empty, terrified and utterly helpless.
More than anything, a depressed child needs to feel safe and loved. They will not feel safe if you’re crying and falling apart. This will make them even more scared than they already are. They will not feel loved if that love comes with ‘conditions’ (ie, that your love is somehow connected to them ‘not being sick’).
Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide
I’ve already blogged about this. Talking openly about with your child about suicide is a terrifying prospect. Like many parents, I worried that doing so might ‘put thoughts’ into my child’s head.
This is a fallacy.
If your child is depressed and self-harming, then there is a very strong likelihood your child has – at one stage or another – also had suicidal thoughts. These thoughts will be extremely frightening for your child. They may feel they cannot speak to you about them for fear of upsetting you.
It will be a huge relief if they know they can talk openly with you about suicidal thoughts. So, don’t be afraid to ask your child this very simple question: ‘Have you had any suicidal thoughts?’
If they say no, leave if for now but keep a close eye on them. If they remain depressed and are still self-harming, ask them the same question again in a few days’ time.
You can tell them it’s very common for depressed people to have suicidal thoughts. You can tell them it might help them to talk about this. Let them know it’s okay for them to talk to you about what they are thinking. Let them know you want to understand how they’re feeling and what you can do to help.
Most importantly of all, remember this: In the UK, suicide accounts for 14% of deaths in 10 – 19 year olds. Young people can – and do – kill themselves.
The more you understand about what your child is thinking, the better able you are to keep them safe.
Don’t try to do this alone
As parents, we want to do everything we can to keep our children safe. We believe no one in the world is better placed than us to do this. Most of the time, we’re right to think this. But not when our child has a serious illness.
If your child has mental health issues, you need help. You need professional help from your doctor and mental health experts. And you need all the support you can get from friends and family.
There is no shame in admitting you cannot do this by yourself. You can’t, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to give your child the support they need.
The first thing you need to do is make an appointment with your family doctor. Tell your doctor your child is ill and needs help. Insist on a CAMHS referral.
Due to woefully inadequate funding of children and adolescent mental health services, you may or may not get seen by CAMHS. If CAMHS are unable to see you, don’t give up hope.
Take your child directly to the emergency unit of your local hospital. Tell the people there that you are worried about your child’s safety. Tell them you do not want to take your child home without a psychiatric assessment. Be as pushy as you have to be to get the help your child needs.
At the same time as you are pushing for medical help, don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family. Taking care of a child with a mental illness is a very lonely experience. Most of your friends and family will have very little knowledge of mental health issues. But if your friends and family are anything like mine, that doesn’t matter.
They may not understand what you’re going through – and that’s really okay because how could they? – but they will be there for you. Tell them what’s happening. Explain your child’s illness to them. Ask for help. Keep asking for help. Your friends and family will want to help. So let them.
Trust the mental health experts
In an earlier blog, I spoke about the doctor we met who ‘didn’t believe’ in mental illness. I’ve also blogged about our negative experience with one CBT counsellor. These bad experiences are the exception. Almost every other medical professional we’ve met has been amazing.
Your child’s psychiatrist, mental health nurse and counsellor have all spent years studying young people’s mental health. While you are the person with expert knowledge about your child, they are the people with expert knowledge about your child’s illness.
It’s important you listen to their advice, particularly when it comes to choosing the right course of treatment for your child.
During the worst of my daughter’s illness, I never let go of the belief that she would get better. It was the single thing that kept me going. I was right to be hopeful.
Slowly, after six of the most harrowing months of my entire life, Nora is showing signs of recovery. She has started speaking again, she can eat enough food to stop her losing any more weight. Most importantly of all, she has started to engage with life again. She still isn’t ‘better’ but she is definitely ‘getting better’.
Your child will get better too. Never let yourself stop believing this.
There will be days – many days – when you feel as if you cannot bear what is happening to your child. You can bear it. You must bear it. Now, more than any other time in your child’s life, they need you to be strong.
One of the things that helped me enormously was reading Matt Haig’s blog Reasons to stay alive.
For months I read this every day. I read it to myself, and I read it to Nora.
If you are feeling hopeless right now, I urge you to read it too.