Fact: 1 in 5 children between the ages of 13-18 years old have, or will have a serious mental illness.
Fact: 20% of youth between the ages of 13-18 live with a mental health condition.
Fact: 11% of youth have a mood disorder.
Fact: 10% of youth have a behavior or conduct disorder.
Fact: 8% of youth have an anxiety disorder.
Fact: Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth between the ages of 10-24 years old.
These staggering statistics don’t account for the percentage of families who are gravely impacted by living with a loved one diagnosed with a mental health disorder. The strain on family systems continues to be a growing epidemic in our country and one that is still plagued by stigmatizing labels and shame. For parents with children who are diagnosed, their lives are permanently altered and their dreams forever shifted. Millions of parents in our country are grieving the loss and coping with paralyzing guilt for the inability to help their children within an impaired system.
Meet Jen. She is a woman, wife, daughter, sister, friend, teacher, human service provider, realtor and most importantly, she is a mother. Jen has courageously chosen to share her story with the hope that it might provide the validation and support she once needed. Jen is on a continuous journey towards fighting for her son and his health; while juggling the needs of her transitional family. I believe Jen’s story resonates with so many parents who are in suffering for their children. Unfortunately, Jen’s story is not unique; yet so many people continue to struggle silently. They are hiding out of shame, resentment, embarrassment and the fear of rejection.
I am proud to stand beside Jen as she resurrects her truth in mothering honestly. Please help me in honoring my friend’s courageous story and the sacred love she holds for her son by showing your support so that we can all rest easier knowing there is power in standing Resurrected Together.
Here is her story:
Have you ever asked yourself the question, “How did I get here?” I have been asking myself that a lot lately. I am wondering, “Where am I?”
Like most mothers, my path to motherhood has a story and it’s taken me on an unexpected journey I never expected or was prepared for. I don’t know how anyone can prepare for parenthood? The books, unsolicited advice from other parents, generational wisdom and my attempts to seek out every parental strategy to add to my arsenal still didn’t prepare me anymore than I have learned it can prepare anyone. I find myself reminiscing about the days when I believed parenthood was a pampers commercial. I envisioned myself holding a perfect cherub in my arms. If only that was real. Please don’t mistake it. There are moments of perfection, but they’re fleeting.
I describe myself as an imperfect parent who is scarred by the daily struggle of raising four teenagers. In the beginning I had the dream we all have. I believed anything would be possible for my children. I believed in the subliminal messages we all hear and want to believe:
“You can do anything you set your mind to.”
“Your hard work will pay off.”
“You are capable of anything.”
No one tells you that while this may be true for our children; we’re not in control of their destiny. In an instant, life as I knew it changed and it felt like the wind was violently sucked out of my sails. Seven years ago my husband and I found out that our youngest child was battling with mental health struggles. While we quickly identified that something wasn’t right, it took years for us to learn of its name. Our son was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Mood Disorder (NOS), Bipolar and a form of Autism. These terms put a name to what we saw our son struggle with, but no one prepares parents for the impact it would have on the entire family.
We immediately began to wrap our son like a suit of armor we desperately wanted to protect. I began to grieve my path as a mother just as my husband began to grieve his path as a father and his siblings began to grieve how they identified with their brother. My role as a wife changed too. My anguish, protection and grief grew fierce and like most of us mothers, I became consumed with anything I could do to fight against the new fragility of my son. It was a traumatic time for all of us as we tried to identify with what the new “norm” as a family would begin to look like.
Then there are your extended friends, family, school, community and support system. We were faced with trying to unveil the lack of understanding and stigmatizing shame of mental illness. We spent months fighting for a diagnosis just as we found ourselves utterly defeated with insinuations that we were somehow responsible.
The grief is not only exhausting, but it’s isolating too. While you’re grieving the new reality as a family and the painful realization that your child will not lead a conventional life, you’re also grieving the loss of relationships that decide separation is better than support. It wasn’t long before I began to take inventory on the relationships in my life. What is even more painful as a mother is when your children begin to take inventory in their relationships. When I heard my daughter share how she hesitates to have friends come to the house, it felt like the air had been sucked out of me. Here I was unable to protect my son from his debilitating illness while I couldn’t protect my other children from the stigmatizing shame they faced by association. Our circle became pretty small.
Unlike other illnesses like leukemia or cerebral palsy, no one could see my son’s pain and struggle. People expect more because of what they can’t see. We fought to provide what he needed in a society that is not set up to support what it doesn’t understand. Every direction we turned to find support was met with resistance and the reminder that the stigma of mental health is real.
As of now our son is in a self-contained classroom, but things are not going well. School isn’t set up for what he needs anymore than we seem to be despite fighting feverishly to be what he needs. What parents with special needs are often faced with is the agonizing decision to entertain options that were never part of the “dream.” We are currently contemplating the need to coordinate an in-patient hospitalization that will mark our third attempt in the last three years. If a child has cancer, no one would question or judge my decision to hospitalize him. Meanwhile, those same people have no idea of the heartbreak when you drive home without your child entrusting that his needs are met better than they are within the comfort of your own home.
The other silent part of grief is what feels like a full-time job of phone calls, crises, coordination, appointments and despair. There are days I am barely keeping my head above water. I have left a career in human services in an effort to be more readily available to my son, but that hasn’t come without serious consequences and considerations too. I am trying to carve a new career path to juggle familial needs and still find myself grieving the loss of a dream as a mother, but most importantly for my son.
If you’re struggling with mental illness personally or in your family, please know you’re not alone. It can be so isolating and it brings me comfort knowing that my struggles are not unlike millions of parents. The shame and stigma attempt to keep people quiet, but it’s likely you don’t even know people around you who are fighting to stay afloat too. I found a sense of belonging and community in the Depression and Bi-Polar Support Alliance.
It’s a safe space to share in the feelings of grief and despair. I don’t know how or why we got here. I think that is a question I’ll continue to ask for everyone’s sake, but no more than I ask for my son. I have to find the victory when they present themselves. I have to believe that someday I’ll feel the wind beneath my sails again, even if one day and one triumph at a time.
In dedication of my son Carter.
The preceding statistics and more information on children and mental illness can be found on the National Alliance on Mental Illness website at, www.nami.org
In Love & Truth,