May is mental health awareness month. Good thing, too, because I’m feeling sad and frustrated about an experience I had last week, and I want to share it with you. I hope it makes you sad and frustrated, too—at least enough to join the conversation.
Last Thursday at a high school in Camarillo, I presented NAMI’s Ending The Silence (ETS) program to sixty sophomores. ETS was designed specifically for high school age students and is a two-part program. (Learn more about NAMI here, and ETS here.)
The first part of the program consists of a Powerpoint presentation and videos to raise awareness about what mental illness is and what it isn’t, the effects of stigma and how it prevents people from seeking help, warning signs and symptoms of mental illness and of suicide, and suggestions on how the students can help themselves or a friend in need. I explain my authority on the subject matter comes from my lived experience of having a school age child that was diagnosed with mental illness. I make a point of telling the kids they aren’t alone, that there are people who are ready and willing to help them. I encourage them not to keep quiet and for sure not to keep secrets. I imply we adults can be trusted. “We’re here for you,” I say. “I promise.” We cover a great deal of ground in a short amount of time.
The second part of the presentation is provided by a person living with a mental health diagnosis who shares her lived experience. She (or he) describes what it’s like to grow up, learn to cope, and then to thrive with the diagnosis of one of these medical conditions. After the formal presentation, we leave time for a Q&A session. That’s when the conversation always gets real.
Let me be clear: Our children are in pain, real pain.
Five minutes into our Q&A, I saw firsthand the sadness, despair, and overwhelm start to drip down faces and splatter textbooks. We passed around a lot of tissues. My co-presenter and I were asked questions like: How can I make the pain stop? How can I force my parents to take my problems seriously? No one is listening to me, what can I do? We answered these questions and the rest of them as best we could, and then stayed longer to answer more questions. I sat with two students, listened to them talk, and suggested that maybe it was time to take their valid concerns to a trusted adult, like the school counselor. If their parents weren’t willing to help, someone else could.
“We did that,” they said. “She basically told us to get over it.” FULL STOP.
Parents: tried it.
Trusted adult: tried it.
Outcome: You’re on your own.
These are high school sophomores, people. What do we expect them to do?
Look, I get it. Kids today. They can be dramatic; they can be seeking attention; they can be causing trouble for trouble’s sake. They’re teens after all—trouble is part of the job description. But—and it’s a big but—sometimes the problem is real. The statistics prove it. Right now 1 in 5 adolescents is struggling with a mental health issue. Last week, I saw the validity of this stat with my own eyes. Our children will grow up and turn into the 1 in 17 adults that are diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Sure, not every case is severe. Not every issue is dire. Maybe you think I sound dramatic. Maybe I do. That’s okay, because if you’re one of the parents that has been sticking your head in the sand hoping the problem will disappear, you’re taking too much of a risk.
Help is real. Hope is real. Recovery is real. My family is living proof of it. If you think your child is struggling, I’ve put together a list of dos and don’ts I hope you’ll find helpful in deciding how to move forward.
• Say, “Get over it.”
• Ignore pleas for help
• Assume the issue is only behavioral
• Assume the behavior is “normal teenage stuff,” a phase, or dramatics
• Let stigma keep you from reaching out for help (you are not alone)
• Let denial and fear prevent you from acknowledging there could be a problem or that the problem is bigger than you can handle
• Ditto anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and self-blame
• Allow your other responsibilities to interfere with seeking the help your family needs
• Take a teenager’s attitude personally (especially if there’s a mental health issue going on)
• Pay attention
• Speak and act with compassion
• Trust your gut, no one knows your child better than you do. If you sense there could be a problem, there could be a problem
• Keep them talking and ask questions
• Seek education on mental illness and assistance from qualified professionals (Consider taking NAMI's Family to Family or Basics class.)
• Keep your expectations in check
• Investigate resources (money is always a concern with seeking out treatment options, but there are low cost and sliding scale options like the community counseling center at Cal Lutheran.)
• Advocate for your child, don’t take “no” or “we’re too busy” or “that’s not our problem” for an answer (especially when dealing with school resources. Read my blog post on IEPs here.)
• Remember: You are not alone
• Find a way to cope that works for you
The fact of the matter is that earlier intervention leads to better outcomes. (Read my post about early intervention here.)
Lives hang in the balance. Are you willing for your child’s to be one of them?
This column also appeared on iPinion Syndicate. Check our work out here.