May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This month I will have a series on mental health based on my experiences through walking this path with my children, especially my teenager. The series of posts are based on conversations with my sixteen-year-old daughter who has been struggling with depression and anxiety for most of her life. In trying to make the right decisions for her, I have had many wrong thoughts and said many wrong things. As a parent, I have needed guidance and a place to ask for advice in this journey. Your experiences may be different than mine. You may not agree with what I have said or done, but until are in the same place with the same circumstances, you may not understand my position. These are our experiences and I hope they are helpful to those in a similar place.
Myth 1: Everyone has anxiety/feels sad sometimes. It’s not that serious, I can handle it on my own.
We each have some levels of anxiety or sadness, but when it takes over your life to the point you can not be a productive employee, wife, husband, parent, student, etc., you can not handle it on your own. You have to reach out for help. Talk to your doctor, pastor, anyone close to you who can help connect you with a counselor. When your mental health is controlling your life, you will need help to get to the root of your anxiety/depression. Even if you are a professional at pushing your anxiety down and covering your depression with working harder, fake smiles, or binging on tv, that is not healthy. At some point, you will explode.
In the case of your child, children handle anxiety and depression in different ways. Some talk openly, some shut down. Some cry, some get mad. Some hide in their bedrooms for hours, some don’t want to be alone. When something seems off, trust your gut. Start reading, researching, and gathering tools to help your child open up. There are links to resources here for kids to verbalize their emotions. When your child’s mental health gets to the point they can not maintain a positive school life, positive relationships with their peers and siblings or they refuse to talk to you, you may need to find some professional help. Also, if you see some polar opposite behaviors that make you wonder, “who is this child?” that’s a red flag that your child may be crying out for help. We may joke about extreme behaviors in the toddler years or puberty, but when the behavior goes beyond typical to almost scary, you may need to seek help.
Myth 2: I need to pray more, study more scripture on anxiety, and be a better Christian so I can get rid of my anxiety/depression.
Early in our anxiety journey, I wrote scripture on index cards and gave them to my daughter. I thought, “more scripture would surely help her feel better.” While scripture, prayer, and improving your spiritual life are essential, they won’t solve the problem. When you are dealing with an illness, physical or mental, you have to get to the root of the illness or anything you try to do will be just a band-aid. Medicine to treat the symptoms may be necessary but unless you work to get to the root of the illness the medicine will be a band-aid for whatever unresolved fear, trauma, grief, or hurt you may be experiencing. Prayer, scripture, and walking with God are essential for working through anxiety and/or depression, but you can not allow it to be the band-aid to cover up whatever the real issues are. A professional counselor can help you dig and find the root of the struggle.
At the beginning of my daughter’s mental health illness, she was in an active youth group at church, but pushing more scripture and “religion” on her caused her to feel worse. She was struggling with her mental health and then became more depressed because she was “failing” in her faith. Helping your child know she is heard, believed, and fully loved by her parents and by God no matter what is going on in her life is exactly what she needs. She will know she has advocates walking along with her as she gets the professional help she needs on her mental health journey.
3. Admitting my child needs help makes me look like a bad parent.
There have been plenty of moments where I feel guilt and shame over my child’s mental health. In a perfect world, we would all be perfect parents, parenting perfect children. In reality, we live in a broken world and we are broken parents, parenting broken children. Yes, God makes us whole, but without Him, we are all walking in brokenness. If your child has diabetes, you get the insulin and all of the tools to help him through his illness. If your child has asthma, you would get an inhaler and nebulizer to help him breathe better. When children have so many emotions to navigate in a society that is turning up the volume on all their fears, sometimes their brains can not handle the weight of the emotions. Their brains do not fully develop until their twenties. As their parent, getting them the help they need to navigate their mental health shows courage and the deepest sense of love that you will do whatever it takes to help your child, including owning up to your fears and failures. Confess them and release the to God. Do not let those feelings linger. By believing and helping your child, you are proving what a loving and compassionate parent you truly are.
4. Everyone has negative voices in their heads, just ignore them.
Intrusive thoughts are still a road we are navigating. Some intrusive thoughts are minor, but some get quite serious and scary. Hearing what thoughts my daughter has going on in her head is quite shocking. She has never acted on her intrusive thoughts, but she is aware enough when she needs to be more cautious in certain situations. Her thoughts are not easily ignored. They get so strong and loud that she needs medicine to help turn down the volume. As she works through counseling, we hope to get to a place where she won’t need the medicine anymore, but as of right now, I am allowing her to have the help she needs to feel better and function.
5. Counseling doesn’t work.
I used to believe this because I had never experienced it working. Then I realized there are several factors at play. First, a counselor is not a magician able to “fix” a person within a few sessions. You are way more complicated than that. Second, all counselors have different methods of counseling. There are different therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) but counselors have their method for how they approach therapy. My current counselor is the best counselor I have ever had. Her approach is what I need in this season of my life. My daughter is on her fourth counselor in three years. This one has been her best so far. She has been the most comfortable with her approach and is more willing to open up and talk. If one counselor doesn’t seem like the right fit after several visits, move on. A good counselor will be understanding and want you to get the help you need no matter where you find it. Third, the faster you open up, the more progress you will make. You have to go each appointment committed to getting better. Opening up with no “off-limits” topics will put you on a quicker path to healing. Fourth, when it comes to teens, when they are ready to feel better they will have to come to that decision on their own and utilize the tools the counselor teaches. As I said, my daughter is finally making progress in her mental health after seeing four different counselors. Let me add, I do not believe that a Christian counselor is always the best route to take. It depends on your child and how she connects with the counselor. The therapist should respect your family’s faith and not go against that no matter what. We have been to two Christian counselors and two secular counselors. Currently, she is making the most progress with a non-faith-based counselor, but it is with much prayer that God is helping her break free from things that have contributed to her anxiety and depression.
I hope this list helps you lay aside any myths or misconceptions you may have about mental health or counseling. Next week I will talk more about our story and navigating mental health challenges with my sixteen year old. I have updated my Resources page with links to mental health websites.
If you have any questions you would like to ask regarding this topic, feel free. I will anonymously incorporate the answers into my blog posts. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Mental Health