How to help your child through mental illness

What do you do when you suspect your child is struggling with their mental health? Melanie Hearse shares her personal - and all too common - story.

Having sat on both sides of the equation, I’m not sure which is harder - developing a mental illness, and the long and painful period of finding the right diagnosis and a treatment plan that works or being a parent watching your child go through it.

What I have learned, as someone who took months to accept a diagnosis of clinical anxiety and depression because it was such a taboo topic 20 years ago (I preferred to believe there was something physically wrong, waiting to be discovered), is the process of seeking help and diagnosis has vastly improved. Thanks to the rapidly diminishing stigma and improved awareness, early detection is easier, and access to treatment is increasingly improving.

When my kids experienced various struggles that hung about a little longer than the norm, we went straight to the GP and had an appointment with a psychologist and a treatment plan in place within weeks. And while it’s impossible to say if they would have (or will) develop issues as serious as mine, I can say I was impressed at the rapid effect getting the right treatment, early, has had. I’d also be lying if I said I haven’t wondered how different my 20s might have been if I’d grown up in these times.

Getting in early

Some of the most common mental health conditions that children present with are anxiety, depression, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and eating disorders says Haylea Hodges, Youthrive Psychologist.

“It is vital for your child’s mental health that you seek professional help as early as possible because early intervention can reduce the impact of the symptoms on your child's lifetime. A diagnosis can help to ensure that treatment is effective for their presenting concern,” she says.

Mental health conditions can sometimes be hard to identify. So Haylea recommends those noticing ‘red flags’ in their child’s behaviour (think changes in mood, sleep, appetite, or concentration levels) talk to their offspring about seeing a GP. “Also look out for an increase in physical symptoms, such as nausea and headaches, substance use, or self-harm,” she adds.

Step one is a visit to your GP, who will be able to recommend further assessment or intervention suited to your child’s needs. The assessment or intervention may include a mental health care plan allowing up to 10 Medicare rebated therapy sessions in the calendar year, making it far more affordable.

Do not panic

Don’t set unrealistic expectations for the process, it can be a tricky and confronting time.

“Sometimes behaviours and negative emotions can get worse before they get better," says Haylea. "Remember, your child is probably dealing with a lot of unexpected feelings. Try to support them without blaming them or making them feel like there is something wrong with them."

You can still help your child if they’re not ready to talk

Depending on your child’s age and stage – some mental illnesses do not rear their head until late teenagerhood or beyond, they may not be willing to share with you – or acknowledge they may have an issue to even themselves. Haylea says you should give them space, but ensure your child is safe.

“If you believe your child is unsafe, such as in cases of high risk of self-harm or suicide, you may need to present them to the emergency department of a hospital," she says. "Otherwise, keep open communication with your child and provide them with options for accessing help, such as an appointment with their GP.”

Support groups can help your child understand that they are not alone.

Normalising an experience is powerful, Haylea stresses. Not only does it allow your child to identify they're not the only one going through these feelings it also encourages them to see there can be positive outcomes.

The experience can also be daunting for parents, and a support group for parents can help you share your challenges and concerns with a group of people with similar experiences. You may also want to see a therapist yourself, they can help you manage unhelpful thoughts and create strategies to cope with stress.

“Your own self-care is vital when supporting a child with a mental health condition. Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup,” Haylea says.

You can find a good support group through your GP or mental health professional, or by contacting the peak body for your specific issue. Alternatively, check out what the Blackdog Institute has on offer near you.

From personal experience

For my family, we struggled to get both kids to go and see someone initially. We explained what would happen at an appointment, that we would be there in the room as little or as much as they wanted, and that we both see therapists when we struggle with a personal issue – just like we’d take them to the dentist for a toothache, or sign up for tutoring if they were having trouble with a class at school, a therapist is there to help you learn how to sort through tricky feelings. Within 15 minutes of their first session, they both realized the value of a trustworthy adult they didn't have to edit their feelings with (it's not uncommon for kids to downplay problems to avoid hurting a parent's feelings.)

And a bonus tip: It’s completely normal to feel afraid and upset about your child's future. I’ve since learned it’s best to focus on one step at a time, and as long as you continue to actively support them along their journey, you can reassure yourself that you’re all doing your best and excess worry won’t actually provide any practical benefit - if you have to, give yourself 15 minutes to worry, write the fears out in a diary (or headspace offers phone counselling for family members), then do your best to move on for the day.

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