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Mental health seems to be on everyone’s radar right now – there are fundraisers, movements, ways to change your Facebook postings. It almost seems as though mental health is suddenly….SEXY?! Can that be possible?  For caregivers, parents, loved ones of those living with mental illness we know that is not the case.

Mental health issues impact the entire family, and this is especially true when children are involved.  The supports available to young people dealing with mental illness in Ontario are abysmal. Equally appalling though are supports for the caregivers of these young people.  There have been documented instances of parents “giving up their children” to social services out of a feeling that a greater level of care and support would be provided. It is unconscionable in a country such as Canada that it is anywhere near acceptable for this to happen! To see the heartbreak on the faces of the parents when they have reached the point of such decisions should be enough to prompt decision-makers to act, yet that has not happened.

Parents of young people living with mental health issues are left to flounder on their own. Attempts to seek emergency care are often met with the news the facility has no capacity to treat children, and so the parents are sent home with the news that they must wait for community services to be available.  Parents also frequently must pay out of pocket for treatment – and there have been numerous instances of families declaring bankruptcy simply from having to pay for treatment for their kids.

There is also plenty of evidence supporting the sad reality that having a young person experiencing mental illness in your family also increases the likelihood of marital breakup. Of course, this does not happen to all families, in fact, some families pride themselves on “beating the odds” (the statistics in this area are not favorable!). Unfortunately, it does happen to far too many, and why? Parenting a child with a mental illness is incredibly draining to a parent: emotionally, physically in many cases, psychologically, financially, and not surprisingly this has an impact on all other relationships. Parenting a young person with a mental illness means you are not always reliable at work, or as a child yourself, as a friend, as a partner.  It is even more damaging to a relationship if most of the caregiving responsibility falls on the shoulders of one parent.

Wait – we have parents who are giving their children up to social services, who are declaring bankruptcy, and seeing marriages end – and we don’t think there is a crisis here?! This is not intended to negate the experience of parents coping with chronic or terminal illnesses of their children, but mental illnesses are often chronic too.

Family and friends offer support, time, even childcare for those facing the former experience. But if you are the parent of a child with severe behaviours associated with a mental illness, there’s no line up waiting to help you out. You know the person who watches the meltdown out in public is judging your parenting abilities. You dread, yet again, having a conversation with the teacher, the principal, anyone who will listen, about the support your young person needs. You dread having friends tell you to still come to their gathering as they are sure “everything will be fine”, but there is no way to guarantee it. It’s hard to explain to friends and family why plans must be changed again, when all that is really needed is a few hours out – a break from reality. Or to have defend oneself to an employer if time is missed from work – yet again! Because we know at this moment we are not an effective employee, and that is just one more burden placed upon our shoulders.

It is not sexy when our children are having meltdowns when we are out, when we can’t sleep at night because we are checking to make sure the young person in our life is still in their bed and has not gone to harm themselves. It is not sexy when we are panicking because they are not responding to our texts, and we are wondering if it is because they have chosen to harm themselves. It is not sexy when we are supporting our loved ones through eating disorders, or debilitating anxiety and depression, when we are sleepless at the thought of these young people leaving for post-secondary education, when we are wondering how and if they will ever be able to live on their own and support themselves.

Nope folks, there is nothing sexy about our experience of mental illness – and it’s time for that message to get out. Children with mental illnesses are capable of great things, with the right supports, which means their parents need support too.

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.

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