Parenting is hard work; there is not a parent around who would disagree with that statement. You arrive home from the hospital with this tiny little being and wonder, what next? What do I do now? Very quickly, that question is answered for you as you become overwhelmed with feedings and diaper changes, recognizing this is a phase that will pass. For some parents though, a sense of being overwhelmed remains throughout their children’s lives. For parents of young people suffering from physical or mental health challenges that sense of being overwhelmed never goes away.
Parents of children with mental health issues may not talk about the challenges they face, largely because they are too busy managing crises. While efforts have been made to address stigma associated with mental illness, it is still prevalent. Parents experience this in every dealing they have when supporting their child with mental health issues. Stigma is rampant when it comes to mental health issues experienced by children, youth and adolescents. This stigma is delivered in the education system, in the health care system and among society at large. There is a tremendous lack of understanding and empathy regarding the experiences of young people and their families when it comes to mental health issues. Services are frequently lacking, both in schools and the healthcare system. Much of the care and advocacy for youth mental health services falls on the shoulders of the parents. You think there is a lack of supports for children and youth with mental health issues – look at the lack of resources and supports for their parents!
These parents must battle to get their kids every single resource necessary to ensure the care and services they need. It is not ok to send a suicidal kid home with their parents while they “wait” for an urgent appointment 6 weeks down the road. That means that for 6 weeks, those parents will not sleep, will not rest, will not have peace as they watch everything their child does and wonder, “Is today the day he/she tries to take their life?”
And this does not end as children age; the problems only become more complex. What do I do if my child, who has lived with mental illness all their life, tells me they want to attend a post-secondary institution hours away from our home? How can I support their need to grow and be independent with my growing concern about their ability to safely be on their own? How do I help them navigate their first year at college or university, exposure to substances in a way they have never been exposed to before, dealing with relationships, or lack thereof? This becomes the reality for parents, a reality that does not seem to have an end in sight.
Given this, one would expect a tremendous amount of caregiver burnout experienced by parents, which is true. The difference, though, is that parents of young people experiencing mental health distress have no ability to succumb. There is too much at stake; when you are the only person who sees the potential of this young person and knows things would be so much better for them with the right supports – well, you just keep soldiering on. We talk a lot about services for kids with mental health issues, but we need to do more than talk. Those services are NOT available and it is time to acknowledge that and force decision makers to address this. It is not ok to download this burden to parents, simply because we are the parent of this young person. It is not ok to proliferate “evidence” that links the presence of a mental health issue with a “choice” made by a parent (usually mother). It is time to listen to parents when we tell you what it is we think our kids need and not respond with platitudes about how the system works. We know how the system does and does not work, it’s time to listen to us and give us the help needed for our kids to succeed and be well.
About Kim English
I am a Registered Nurse, and Nursing professor with a passion for addressing mental health issues amongst youth. My specific areas of interest are assisting those with mental illness and on the autism spectrum navigate post secondary education and career entry. I also serve as an advocate for rural and Indigenous youth mental health issues.