Parents deal with criticism and judgment in their lives, even if their children are neurotypical. This is somewhat universal from well and not so well meaning people, even family and friends. However, nowhere have I felt or seen more judgment than in having a child with a mental illness. It is surprising how many closet psychiatrists and psychologists exist in the world, I run into them weekly; each is an expert in diagnosed mental illness. All kidding aside, this is very common. It never ceases to amaze me how much people feel they know about psychiatric illness, things gleaned from movies, t.v. shows and the internet.
When you are a parent of a child/teen/young adult diagnosed with a mental illness, it is lonely and isolating much of the time. Many spend hours and hours researching their child’s condition and looking for any applicable tools and resources to use to mitigate issues. Most of us spend a lot of time trying to utilize what few available services there are. There are IEP’s to deal with, psychiatrist appointments, medication issues, some have to deal with behavioral referrals and violence, others psychosis and self harm. There is nothing easy about being a parent of a child with a mental illness.
The prevailing belief that mental illness can be “fixed” with certain parenting strategies or is the cause of bad parenting, along with the, “If only that was my child, that wouldn’t be happening” attitude is something that has just not gone away. The supposition is that there exists a “right” way to parent mental illness, in a spectrum where as many differences exist across illnesses as there are connections between them. Diagnosed illnesses exist as snapshots in time. A child can be diagnosed with depression and have the diagnosis change as the illness or knowledge of it evolves. It is not uncommon for a child to be diagnosed with depression, then a rule-out bipolar, only to be diagnosed later in life with schizoaffective disorder. Trying to hit a moving target is not easy, especially given the way the actual illnesses are diagnosed. So much of diagnosis is still based on paper testing and analysis, rather than any physical test.
So what is, “Doing it ‘right'”? Do psychiatrists and psychologists, random acquaintances, teachers, administrators, friends and family members hold the key to the “right” way? In my view, those in the trenches with the kids who are trying to achieve some degree of success for them are the ones who get to decide what “right” is. For some, school (mainstream, therapeutic or otherwise) is the best option, for others, homeschooling may work better. Some kids who have violence associated with their illness, therapeutic boarding schools and hospitals may need to be part of the equation. Mitigating stress and finding a balance to keeping our loved ones well is paramount. Whatever situation (which is always evolving anyway) that allows a person with a mental illness to function, be safe, keep others safe, etc. is what nearly all of us strive for. In other words, there is no “right”.
I also feel a compelling need to add a disclaimer: I have yet to meet a person with a child who suffers from a mental illness that hasn’t beaten themselves up and down for ‘failing’. Every parent I have encountered who finds they have a child with a mental illness has done everything in their power to try and find out how to help their child. Some illnesses don’t manifest themselves in an obvious way until something terrible happens, either to the person with the illness, or someone else. This is one reason that treatment options in this country being abysmal is so problematic; it hurts everybody.
It is necessary that we, collectively, wake up and realize how difficult it is for many people. It is “our” job to make sure support and resources exist that offer very vulnerable people opportunities to function and exist as whole people in our society. That is what I believe is, “Doing it, ‘right'”.