Parents’ Journey Through Mental Illness

Published in the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel on May 16, 2016

News Editor’s note: The following feature is the second in a series highlighting May as mental health month. Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.

By Colin Rowan, Burke

Edward and Victoria have had difficult conversations in the last year, but none was more heartbreaking than when they talked about what they’d do if they found their daughter’s body.

“That’s a terrible thing to have to think about,” said Victoria. “But the situation had gotten very serious, and we truly believed she might kill herself.”

Jamie, then 15, had transformed from what her mother describes as a “normal, argumentative” teenager into a walking tornado. Everything seemed to spark an argument with her family.

“She used to be a happy, silly, funny little girl,” Victoria said.

But things changed. Jamie was spending more and more time alone in her room. She didn’t want to leave the house or spend time outside like she did when she was little. She didn’t even want to watch TV.

Eventually, the arguments at home escalated and became physical.

“Sometimes, we’d have to just leave her alone to blow off steam,” Victoria said.

The warning signs
In hindsight, the worried parents had been seeing more and more warning signs that their daughter was headed toward a mental health crisis.

Jamie had hurt herself intentionally in the past — and her parents were afraid she would do something more serious. And permanent.

The list of “mental health warning signs” is long, experts say, and includes several areas of risk — family history, quality of home environment, physical health and social relationships. It’s risk factors around which most lists of mental illness symptoms are developed.

For example, parents are taught to look for signs of losing interest in friends or hobbies or dramatic shifts in a child’s school performance or attendance, sleeping habits, social patterns and mood.

Protective factors
Recognizing warning signs is important, but so is creating “protective factors” — tools that help children cope with mental illnesses such as eating disorders or depression, and protect them from drug abuse or tragic behaviors like suicide, says Michael Cunyus, director of mental health programs at Burke.

“You are more likely to help a child by being proactive and focusing on areas such as healthy living habits, open communication and family support,” he said. “The stronger the child’s foundation, the better that child can handle the world — whether it be mental illness or anything else.”

In Jamie’s case, her strongest protective factor may have been a family that wouldn’t give up. Her parents made several trips to various facilities in East Texas when they believed she was a danger to herself.

Right place, right medication
“It was hard for us to find the right place for help,” Victoria said. “And then, once we seemed to have the right place, it took a few tries to get her medication right.”

A strong family isn’t the only factor that can help children, Cunyas says. Learning good problem-solving skills can help them step back from a crisis and develop a constructive way to cope. The more comfortable a child is confiding in friends and adults, he said, the more likely he will be to reach out for help when he needs it. Strong connections to religious or social groups are also recommended, since it is harder for a teenager to withdraw from groups that want him there.

‘It’s night and day’
Today, Jamie’s medication is working, her parents say, and things have settled down at home. Check-in appointments are scheduled every few weeks.

Victoria describes the last few weeks as “wonderfully uneventful.”

“It’s night and day,” she said. “She’s playful and lovable again, and she’s doing really well in school. We have our daughter back. Our family is back.”

The couple agreed there will be challenges ahead, but believe their daughter is on the right track. “We’re here to guide our kids to adulthood,” Victoria said. “That path may look different for each child. But as a parent, you can never give up on them. Our job is to do whatever it takes.”

At a glance

If your child is having a mental health emergency, call Burke’s 24-hour Crisis Hotline at 1-800-392-8343. For general information or to make an appointment, call 936-634-5010.

What are “protective factors?” They aren’t a “Get out of mental health crisis” card, but these factors have been shown to help children if they face a mental challenge or crisis. Many are skills or traits parents can help their children develop over time — and will help them in adulthood.

In their personality:
• Easy temperament
• Problem-solving skills
• Good social and emotional skills
• Positive coping style
• Optimistic outlook
• Positive attachment to parents or guardians

In their everyday environment:
• Family harmony and stability
• Supportive parents
• Strong family values
• Consistency and predictability, including firm boundaries and limits

In school:
• Positive school environment
• Sense of belonging and connectedness between family and school
• Opportunity for participation in a range of activities
• Academic achievement

Through life events:
• Involvement with a caring adult
• Support available at critical times

In society:
• Participation in community networks
• Positive connection to a faith community
• Access to support services
• Strong cultural identity and pride