Things I wish I’d known

girlOver the last year, I’ve learned a huge amount about mental illness in general, and childhood depression in particular. I’m not an expert, but I know a hell of a lot more than I did before my daughter’s illness.

In a recent post, I listed the top five things I’ve learned about supporting a child with depression.

Today is World Mental Health Day, which aims to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world.

So, to mark World Mental Health Day, I’ve decided to share the five things I wish I’d known earlier about mental illness.

Depression is a terrible illness

Before Nora fell ill, my knowledge of depression was limited. I knew it was an illness caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. I vaguely understood that depressed people ‘felt down’ and ‘lacked energy’ and sometimes needed medication to help get their lives back on track.

I had no idea it could be a life-threatening illness that, in extreme cases, literally sucks the life out of its victims.

I hadn’t heard about psycho-motor retardation, a terrible depression-related condition that slows down your mind and body, making even the simplest thoughts or movements seem impossible.

At her worst, Nora lost the ability to speak. But she was always able to communicate, using pen and paper to tell me what she was experiencing. This post about depression, captures how she described the illness.

Children with depression hear voices

Did you know this? I sure as hell didn’t.

By the time Nora told me she was hearing voices, she was already very ill. We didn’t know what was happening, or why she’d got ill so quickly.

Like, I suspect, many parents who don’t know much about mental illness, I assumed hearing voices was a ‘very bad thing indeed’. Turns out it’s not half as bad as I imagined.

Of course, it’s very scary for the child who is hearing the voices. But, according to Nora’s psychiatrist, 90% of the children she sees hear voices at some point during their illness.

Anti-depressants save lives

I’ve banged on at length about this topic, so I won’t go on about it again here.

I know some people have concerns about giving anti-depressants to children. At one stage, I might have been one of those parents. I’m not now.

It’s okay to talk about suicide

What parent wants to discuss suicide with their eleven-year-old child? Not me, that’s for sure. Or so I thought until the first time Nora tried to take her own life. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about what you should – and shouldn’t – do when your child has suicidal thoughts.

Again, suicide is something I’ve spoken about in earlier posts, if you want to know about  what I’ve learned.

The most important thing to know is this: if your child tells you they wish they were dead, take them seriously. Speak to them; find out exactly what they’re thinking. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Being open – and pragmatic – about suicidal thoughts might just save your child’s life.

You’re stronger than you think you are

As the wise man, Kevin Bacon once said, you’re only ever as happy as your least happy child.

Like most parents, I’ve always assumed I would simply fall apart if something terrible happened to one of my children. In fact, this didn’t happen (well, it hasn’t happened so far…).

Yes, it’s been a terrible year. Over a few months, we watched our daughter change from a happy, confident, cheeky girl to someone who was so ill she was no longer able to speak or dress herself or do any of the basic tasks we take for granted.

We didn’t understand what was happening to our child. And we weren’t alone. The mental health experts working with Nora were also at a loss. We were repeatedly told they had never encountered a child with such severe symptoms. She was so ill, it took a team of mental health experts two months to agree the best way to treat her.

It was the worst of times for our family. But, somehow, we got through it. As Nora gets better, we are stronger as a family than we’ve ever been.

For that, and so much else, I am immensely grateful.

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