Children with a Mental Illness – Yes, It Could Be Your Child
I give presentations on mental illness in different places, and one of those places is in schools. Kids aged 12-18 get to hear about mental illness, stigma and my personal story of bipolar disorder. This takes around an hour. And after hearing an hour of me speak about my personal challenges and about how I have faced down bipolar disorder are a myriad of treatment failures, the teens often feel a certain closeness with me. I suspect it is for this reason that after the presentation, so many of them come up and talk to me. They talk about how they have been in the hospital or how they have a friend with bipolar or that they think they might have a mental illness.
And, of course, if a teen thinks they have the symptoms of a mental illness I always say, “Have you talked to your parents about this?”
And I always expect them to look at me like I just said something ridiculous because when I was their age, I sure would have found the notion laughable.
But they generally don’t. Many, many of them have, indeed, talked to their parents. And what have the parents done?
Their parents have done nothing.
The parents have said that they don’t believe the child or they have brushed away the subject as if it were permission to get their ears pierced. So now, the child, clearly in pain, some of them, in fact, crying, is standing in front of me, wanting to know what to do.
My Child Doesn’t Have a Mental Illness
I think that when parents look at their child they see something other than a person. I think they see a miracle. Or a burden. Or a mistake. Or perfection. Or whatever. The parent sees a child, not like a person, but like a ball of emotion. In the case where the parent thinks that the child is a miracle they can’t imagine that miracle sullied by an illness so of course their child couldn’t have a mental illness. In the case where the child is viewed negatively, they likely don’t care enough to bother with the feelings of the child – feelings they assume are not important or are not real.
And every parent (at least every one I’ve ever met) likes to think of themselves as a good parent. And parents take it as a personal insult to suggest that their child might have a mental illness because parents conflate their child’s lives with their own. They also assume that if the child has a mental illness then it must mean that they did something wrong as a parent – and parents rarely believe that they do such a thing.
[And, of course, it’s important to note that a child’s mental illness is not a parent’s fault. This, however, is not necessarily common knowledge.]
Children Don’t Have Mental Illnesses
And all of that doesn’t even take into account all the parents who don’t believe in mental illnesses or who don’t believe that children can experience mental illnesses or who just don’t believe in doctors period.
In short, if a teen feels like he or she has a mental illness they, very often, have a very steep, uphill battle to climb at home.
Parents that Don’t Help a Child with a Mental Illness Anger Me
This angers me to no end. It angers me that a child will approach and stand, crying, in front of a stranger, basically, begging for help, all the while their parents have been told of the problem and done nothing. The parents just made it worse. The parents just perpetuated the pain. Having a mental illness is scary. It’s terrifying. But to then have it ignored by the people who are supposed to love and protect you is heartbreaking.
Of course, my job (which is to say, not that I get paid for it but that I’m a human being with a soul), is to try and ensure that the kids get help because now, we, strangers, have to work around the parents instead of work with the parents to ensure the child’s wellness. I am left following up with a child who desperately needs help but I can’t do what the parents should have done. I can’t walk the child into a doctor’s or counsellor’s office. But his parents could have. His parents should have.
And all because their own egos wouldn’t allow them to admit that their little “perfect” child was sick. It disgusts me. The parent wouldn’t dare not treat a child for cancer, but a mental illness? Sure, that they ignore. I want to take these children in my arms and make sure they get better because I sure don’t trust the people who were actually put on this earth to do it.
To Parents – Children Can Have Mental Illnesses – Get Them Help!
So my message to parents is this: if a child comes to you and starts talking about symptoms of an illness – any illness – seek professional help. A child’s pain is every bit as real as an adult’s and when they’re standing there crying, and clearly scared, because they recognize there’s a problem; this is not something that should ever be brushed aside. They are reaching out. And for you, not to reach back with real help, is a travesty that could easily end in a tragedy.
Because it could be your child. Or mine. Or anyone’s. Get over your own stuff and accept it, for the sake of your child.