I’ve been slightly overwhelmed recently by the number of people I’ve met – online and in person – caring for someone with mental health problems.
These conversations have made me realise that I know quite a bit more about anxiety and depression than I did nine months ago, when Nora first became ill.
So, today’s blog looks at five important things I’ve learned about supporting a child with anxiety or depression.
Don’t wait to get help
This may seem obvious, but it’s not always. As parents, our first instinct is to protect our children. We don’t want them to be ill.
Sometimes, when they start self-harming, stop eating or tell you they want to die, we don’t take this seriously. We tell them to stop self-harming. We sanction them for not eating properly. We tell them they don’t really want to die.
We try to address the problem with logic. But mental health problems aren’t logical.
Self-harming, suicidal thoughts, refusing to go to school, problems eating and sleeping… these are all signs your child needs help.
This is important. No matter what support you’re getting from CAMHS or other mental health services, you – and you alone – will be the person spending most time with your sick child.
When Nora first fell ill, I believed I could ‘fix’ her through the sheer strength of my love and my determination that she would be well again. I approached her illness with the logical, problem-solving approach I use to tackle most of life’s problems.
Of course, unconditional love is hugely important. Your child needs to know you love them, no matter what. But they also need to know that you understand enough about their illness to help them get them through this dark and difficult time.
The more you learn about your child’s condition, the better placed you’ll be to give them the help they need.
If you’re unsure where to start, take a look at the website for mental health charity Young Minds. They have a wealth of resources, as well as a Parents Helpline you can call for help and advice.
You can also check out the resources section of this blog for books and online material I’ve found most useful.
Anti-depressants aren’t always ‘a bad thing’
Nora has been taking Fluoxetine for six months now. She’ll need to continue taking the medication for a further six months, at least. Anti-depressants saved Nora’s life. We wouldn’t be where we are today without it.
I know that anti-depressants aren’t right for everyone. Finding the right medication, at the right dosage, takes time. And all the time you’re playing around with different levels and types of medication, you are acutely aware that you’re giving your child a drug that has horrific side effects.
In our case, persistence paid off. Once we got the medication right, Nora’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous.
Of course, medication alone isn’t enough. In Nora’s case, her recovery is down to a combination of medication, a counsellor who understands her complex issues, and a loving, supportive family.
If a psychiatrist prescribes anti-depressants for your child, that’s because they believe medication is your child’s best hope of recovery right now. You should listen to what the psychiatrist is telling you. It may be, that you try medication and find it doesn’t work. On the other hand, it might just save your child’s life.
Recovery takes time
Nora had been taking anti-depressants for about eight weeks before we saw the first early signs of improvement. At first, the changes were tiny. She started responding when I hugged her, putting her arms on mine for a moment before dropping them again. She started sleeping again. And then, one morning, a miracle happened – she got out of bed and came downstairs without anyone helping her.
Of course, the next morning – and others after that – she needed help again. But there were also many more mornings when she was able to do it alone. And since then, things have continued to improve.
It’s taken nine months to get this far, and she’s still not ‘better’. She hasn’t gone back to school, she still has terrible meltdowns on a regular basis, and she struggles to do many of the day to day tasks she used to take for granted.
The key thing, however, is this: she’s getting better. Your child will too. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.
It’s no one’s ‘fault’ your child is ill
We all know that mental illness can be triggered by traumatic events in a person’s life. But often people fall ill and there’s no obvious reason why.
If you’ve been a relatively okay parent, if your child’s life up to this point has been pretty uneventful, then the chances are this illness would have happened to them sooner or later.
It’s hard not to blame yourself when your child’s behaviour suddenly changes. Sometimes, it’s also hard not to blame your child.
The line between ‘bad behaviour’ and ‘behaviour caused by anxiety or depression’ is blurred, at best. How can parents know a child’s bad behaviour is deliberate and when it’s not? The simple answer is, we can’t.
But, we should remember this: when a child has anxiety or depression, they’re often unable to help the way they’re behaving.
It’s not your fault your child is ill. It’s not your fault their behaviour is worrying and disruptive. And it’s not their fault, either.