An Open Letter to Parents of Children with a Mental Health Diagnosis

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I am not a parent.

I can’t identify with you on that level. I don’t know what it’s like to receive word that your child (even adult child) has been diagnosed with a mental health condition. I can only imagine what the shock, anger, anxiety, and fear associated with this diagnosis feel like for you. You want the best for your child.

Upon receiving a mental health diagnosis, some people feel an enormous sense of relief that they finally know what is wrong. This feeling may be juxtaposed joltingly with the realization that you’ll be fighting this thing for the rest of your natural life. And people often have so many questions: Why do I have this disease? What would treatment be like? What would people think of me?

But the biggest question of all, far too frequently, is, “You’re kidding, right?”

(It’s always okay–encouraged, even–to get a second opinion.)

So, I wrote this article to provide some insight into what your child may be experiencing, with the hope that these insights can provide some guidance, or at least some comfort.

It’s no one’s fault.

Your child probably thinks he or she did something wrong to “deserve” this condition. Or, perhaps they blame you for problems they perceive arose from childhood. Both are bogus; mental illness is no one’s fault.

OK, sure, some mental illnesses have a high heritability quotient (they get passed on readily through genes). But that doesn’t make it your fault.

Assuaging the sense of guilt by helping your child learn that he or she is not to blame for this condition is really important for recovery.

Mental illness belongs to the family, not just the child.

While your child is the one who carries the mental health diagnosis, it will take the entire household to help him or her recover from or live with the condition. Your child needs your support. She needs you to take your frustration with her down a notch. He needs you to acknowledge that he’s still there and still himself, regardless of what he is going through.

Support means actively seeking to understand what your child feels and how you can best help meet some of their needs. It means asking questions and being open to hearing the answers.

Support also means being open to your child’s questions and helping her find answers if you don’t already have them. You should be your child’s most staunch advocate and biggest cheerleader. He CAN survive this. Sometimes you just have to take it one day at a time.

Don’t blame the illness for things that are under your child’s control.

Support does NOT mean allowing your child to be irresponsible—i.e., using the illness as an excuse for not going to school or work when he is not experiencing symptoms (and should have no problem going). Responsibility is critical for people living with mental illness, as people might already assume that they are lazy or unmotivated.

It really bothers me when people use mental illness as a crutch for their actions. Most of the time, those with mental illness have the dominion over their behavior. They can still make choices and roll with the outcomes. Sometimes, blaming mental illness is legitimate—for example, my roommate once was so ill that she couldn’t get out of bed to go to a medical school interview. She lived and breathed medical school, so that was a huge setback. But when your child has the ability but not the desire to be responsible, it is inappropriate to blame the mental illness.

On the other hand, it can be incredibly difficult to discern whether your child is having genuine symptoms. You know your child better than I do. I would advise being gentle and nonjudgmental in assessing “where he’s at,” all the while encouraging him to do what he is able.

Most people will give your child some leeway upon learning of his condition; this goodwill can easily be eroded by abusing the privilege. My advice? Use what you need. Use it liberally; that’s why it’s there. But when you are better, stand on your own again.

What can I do?

I know parents often feel helpless to relieve their child’s symptoms and deliver peace. Rest assured: you are your child’s greatest ally in this lifelong battle. Here are some important actions you can take to be the best partner for your child.

  1. Learn everything you can about the condition. 
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your child. Research shows asking questions does not drive someone into self-harmful behaviors.
  3. If your child is under 18 and/or your adult child gives you permission, ask questions of his or her doctor.
  4. Learn patience. Whether you have to count to 10 or learn some yoga moves, you’re the one who is going to have to remain calm and centered when your child cannot.
  5. Learn the warning signs of crisis. These may include things like withdrawal, illicit drug use, and talk of suicide.
  6. In partnership with your child, identify a key word or phrase for use exclusively when your child is in crisis and needs immediate help. Alternatively, perhaps a rating system would work better for you. (For example, with bipolar disorder, you might use 0 to 10, where 0 is the lowest/most depressed you can imagine, 5 is average/having no symptoms, and 10 is the highest/most manic you can imagine.)
  7. Encourage your adult child to obtain care and stick with it. It can take months to get an appointment, so start early and make sure your child doesn’t miss the appointment. Ultimately, the responsibility for keeping appointments is your adult child’s, not yours, but your support helps.
  8. Don’t treat your child like he is somehow deficient. Eliminate words like “crazy,” “nuts,” and “retarded” from the household language.
  9. Remember there will be good days and bad days, ups and downs. Don’t let the bad days be devastating, and don’t let the good days give you a false sense of security. 
  10. Assure your child that you still love them and will always do so, no matter what. Never let go.

Jaimie Hunter, PhD, MPH

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I am a writer of Young Adult fiction and non-fiction. I'm also a public health scientist and educator.

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