A parent’s survival guide

Here a mother who knows first-hand the heartbreak and challenges of caring for a teenager battling a mental illness, shares the lessons she learned along the way.

I began to see warning signs in my daughter as she became increasingly miserable and withdrew from social situations with family and friends. I didn’t know what had changed in her world to cause such a decline in her happiness. My fun-loving, carefree child had disappeared, and as a parent I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. I was caught up in my busy daily routine and I didn’t know what was happening.

I talked to other parents who suggested it was ‘just a stage’. Our GP also told us not to worry and that it would pass. I saw my child struggling at school, with friends and family. Her sleeping pattern was interrupted and her eating habits became irregular. When I asked her what was happening in her world, she would respond with grunts, tears or, “nothing, just leave me alone!” Something in my heart made me realise this wasn’t just your average teenage angst, we were dealing with.

It was a long journey to recovery and there were times where I just wanted to give up. But thanks to the support we received from health professionals and our family and friends, my daughter has been able to move on from that challenging time of her life. I learnt many important lessons along the way, and I’d like to share them here with other parents and carers who find themselves in the same situation.

Be brave and ask for help as early as possible (but go to the right people!)
As parents we tend to struggle to admit that some problems in life are too big for us to handle alone. We feel responsible for our child’s wellbeing and when we realise something isn’t quite right, we feel a sense of guilt and failure towards our child. I found it almost impossible to explain to family and friends what was happening to our family, but one morning I woke up and realised we couldn’t do it alone any longer. I was lucky to have a trustworthy GP who knew my family well. After we asked for help, they connected us to the Child and Youth Mental Health Service (CYMHS).

Work collaboratively with your health professionals
As parents and carers we know our children intimately, love them dearly and are willing to support them. We know what our child was like before their problems began so we have valuable knowledge to share with our child’s designated health professional. When they leave the care of a treating team, we are the ones standing by our sons,
daughters and loved ones. Don’t be afraid to speak up and share your knowledge about your child’s health.

Educate yourself about the problem your child is facing
Stigma is still a huge barrier to people getting help for mental health problems. However, getting help early is key, and knowledge is a powerful tool to fight stigma. Be prepared to try new ways of managing the problem so you can educate others in a positive way. Go to reputable websites, ask your health professionals plenty of questions, and continue to expand your knowledge.

Remember that your child is not defined by their problems
Having a label for the problem can help parents and carers to reconnect with their child. Try to view the difficult or odd behaviours as part of the condition, and realise it does not define who your loved one is. I found that practising this technique made it easier with time.

Find strength in support and hope
For a parent to cope with mental health difficulties, we need more than someone telling us to eat properly, to get enough sleep and lessen the stress in our life. We need the sustenance of support and hope. Even though we may feel weak in certain areas, people who work with us and believe in us are able to find our strengths and help us to learn new ways to face problems. Our supporters are able to engage with us at a human level and help us to find ways to be parents and carers again.

Mental illness is not an easy journey and there are always rough patches. But knowing you are not alone is a very powerful catalyst for survival and change.

Useful websites:
Child and Youth Mental Health Service
www.headspace.org.au/
www.youthbeyondblue.com/
https://kidshelpline.com.au/
www.lifeline.org.au/