Category: mental illness

Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health

Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health

When faith helps

Most of the time, people can heal and find peace and self-acceptance through faith. All the world’s great faiths, those that have lasted centuries, are kept alive for this reason. All have common themes of healing and service to others. When things go poorly, meditation and prayer, with others or in private, lead to connection and wholeness. Faith reveals that things are better, and will be better, than they seem.

When families are in crisis because of their troubled child, parents tell me they depend on faith, even parents who don’t profess a faith practice. They say it’s their only source of strength. Most families with a child who is sick, disabled, or mentally ill will go through dark times, when a parent’s world is simply too overwhelming. Most often, no answers are forthcoming, nor any rescue. The only choice is to hand over their burden to a “higher power,” God, the Buddha, Allah, the Great Spirit… This act of “handing over” is a foundation of healing in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

Few things help a family more than a supportive community of believers.  There will be one person who listens to a frightened parent on the phone, and another person who takes a traumatized sibling on an outing, and another person who provides hugs and cookies. If a mentally ill child continues to decline, a good faith-based support network will stay on. The child may not thrive, but the family does, and has the strength and forbearance to handle the years’ long task of supporting their mentally ill loved one.

Science shows that faith results in better lifetime outcomes for a child

This writer typically trusts science, but in the depths of my family’s despair, only faith and the prayers of others kept me from falling apart.

There are scientists among the faithful who have asked the question: does faith really help the mentally ill? In another blog post, Spirituality and mental health, some research are summaries of research going back 36 years.  (Follow this link for the research citations.)  The answer?  Yes, faith makes a real and measurable difference in improving mental health.

More recent scientific research shows clear evidence from brain scans that meditation and prayer change brain electrical activity, from anxious or agitated to serene and grounded.  The person actually feels and behaves better.  This article has more information on this, Yoga – Safe and effective for depression and anxiety.

Like prayer, “talk therapy” or psychotherapy also shows improvement on brain scans. Imagine, just talking with someone improves the physical brain. According to the article appended below, “When God Is Part of Therapy,” many prefer therapists who respect and encourage their faith. It just makes sense.

When faith harms

This section is a personal appeal to faith communities who have unconscionably failed families and their children with mental disorders.

Faith communities depend on people, and people have biases and foibles.  Many of ‘the faithful’ hold negative beliefs about others, right or wrong.  Children who suffer, and their families, are identified as possessed, of evil character, disbelievers, victims of abuse, or cruelest:  those who are paying for their sins. Families are repeatedly told these very things today.

“Sometimes, people hide from the Bible. That is, they use the Christian holy book as an authority and excuse for biases that have nothing to do with God.”
–Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald

Stigmatization from a faith community is a cruel betrayal.

A child’s inappropriate behavior is not a choice, it is a verifiable medical illness, one with a higher mortality rate than cancer:  Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults.  Families with sick children need support; our sense of loss is devastating.

Testimonials

Mother with five children, one with bipolar disorder:

“We were members of our church since we were first married, all our daughters grew up here, but when my youngest spiraled down, I was told the sins of the father are visited on the sons. Or we weren’t praying enough. I knew they thought (Dad) had done something bad to her. We left and went church shopping until we found a pastor who understood and supported us.”

Mother of two children, one with acute pervasive development disorder:

“I wish we had a “special needs” church. We’re so afraid our kid is going to say something and we’re not going to be accepted. We haven’t gone to church for years because of this. They just turned their backs on us, it happened to another family with a deaf child. They avoid parents in pain. Deep down in my heart I believe in the Lord, but there are days when I wonder “where is God?” People call out to pray for a job, or a kid’s grades, but we wouldn’t dare ask for us, no one would get it, we’d be told we were bad parents or didn’t punish him enough.”

Mother of two children, one with schizoaffective disorder:

“When I went up to the front to light a candle and ask for a prayer for my daughter, I expected people would come up afterward and give a hug or something, just like with other families with cancer and such. But it didn’t happen. No one even looked at me. I left alone and decided never to go back.”

Some good news

FaithNet

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has recognized the need for the mentally ill to be part of faith communities, and the negative experiences most face when they attempt to participate in a religious community. NAMI started FaithNet to encourage and equip NAMI members to engage with and share their story and NAMI resources with local faith groups, and appeal for their acceptance.

Key Ministry

Key Ministry: Welcoming Youth and Their Families at Church
Stephen Grcevich, M.D., president, Key Ministry and child & adolescent psychiatry in private practice, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

“Key Ministry believes it is not okay for youth living with mental illness and their families to face barriers to participation in worship services, educational programming and service opportunities available through local churches.”

Churches in American culture lack understanding of the causes and the needs of families impacted by mental illness, which poses a significant barrier to full inclusion.

“A study published recently by investigators at Baylor University examined the relationship between mental illness and family stressors, strengths and faith practices among nearly 5,900 adults in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations. The presence of mental illness in a family member has a significant negative impact on both church attendance and the frequency of engagement in spiritual practices.” When asked what help the church could offer these families, they ranked “support for mental illness” 2nd out of 47 possibilities. Among unaffected families, support for mental illness ranked 42nd.

________________________________________

When God Is Part of Therapy
Tara Parker Pope, March 2011, New York Times

Faith-based therapy is growing in popularity, reports Psychology Today, as more patients look for counselors who can discuss their problems and goals from a religious frame of reference.

Studies show that people prefer counselors who share their religious beliefs and support, rather than challenge, their faith. Religious people often complain that secular therapists see their faith as a problem or a symptom, rather than as a conviction to be respected and incorporated into the therapeutic dialogue, a concern that is especially pronounced among the elderly and twenty-somethings. According to a nationwide survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), 83 percent of Americans believe their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely tied to their state of mental and emotional health. Three-fourths say it’s important for them to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.

The problem for many patients in therapy is that many patients are far more religious than their therapists.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans say their whole approach to life is based on religion. But only 32 percent of psychiatrists, 33 percent of clinical psychologists and 46 percent of clinical social workers feel the same. The majority of traditional counselor training programs have no courses dealing with spiritual matters.

When children are hospitalized with other ailments, the family draws sympathy and support from others.  But because of mental health stigma, most families like ours don’t when our child is hospitalized.  If not blame, we are second-guessed, or as bad, met with silence or a change of subject.

ARE YOU OVERREACTING?

ARE YOU OVERREACTING?

Your child’s incessant problems and scares can literally give you symptoms of PTSD and anxiety disorder that you can’t control.

Like many parents, you might go to extremes to control situations so they won’t get out of hand. You don’t intend overreacting, but so much frustration has built up that any little irritation sets you off like rocket.  You’re battling to make things stop now.

Overreactions are emergency alarms without the emergency.

You can’t see it coming, but then it happens.  In an instant you are on an unstoppable mission to fix, contain, punish, or halt anything that upsets your sense of well-being, imagined or not. Overreacting is a sure sign of stress and that you need a break!  Overreactions may also come from the anger of losing the day you planned, or the life you planned and came to expect.

Dad, project strength on the outside, even when you don’t feel it on the inside. Relieve your tension later, away from the family or co-workers, by doing something physical, for example.

If you are overreacting to gain control, you are actually losing control.  Your parenting choices need considered, thoughtful decisions instead of an automatic 911 call. When your blood boils, you’re not aware how your behavior creates a toxic environment around you and the rest of your family… nor how it worsens a troubled kid’s behavior.

  • Do you worry even when things are fine?  Do you find things to worry about that aren’t problems?
  • Are you so stressed and traumatized that you just can’t stand it anymore and want the behavior to stop immediately, yesterday?
  • Is every little minor thing a reason to pull out the heavy artillery?
  • Do you overwhelm difficult situations with your own anxieties or explosions?

It’s common for parents with really difficult kids to get stuck this way, so forgive yourself if you overreact, and stop and look at what this does to your relationships and interactions with your troubled child.

  • Do you stop eating, or start drinking, when your stress is just an overreaction to a situation you’ve already handled?
  • If you’ll do anything to make your child stop a challenging behavior, might you go too far with little things? Will you call the police because they slammed the door?
  • When others hear you constantly complaining, might they consider that the problem is you?
  • Do you mirror your child’s bad behavior to show them what it looks like? Are they interpreting this the way you hope, or are you lowering yourself?
Mom, you know this helps no one. You have every reason to “lose it” but find a safer way to relieve tension. Get away occasionally, or distract your worries with friends or an activity you enjoy.

Overreactions sabotage opportunities for improvement. They terrify everyone , and your family starts to hide things from you, or downplay things, just so you won’t overreact or worry yourself to death. When family members feel a need to keep secrets, the isolation feeds your worry. Members will smooth over problems or distract you with lightness to counterbalance your fearful or explosive state of mind. Now you are less in control and receive less of the support you need for your own well-being.

If you feel paralyzed by worry or lash out as a way of coping, you are disabling yourself stress and/or depression. Before you completely lose control and your self-respect and parental authority, take care of yourself and get help for both your physical and emotional exhaustion. Check in with others and ask them if you are thinking clearly or realistically.

You must be emotionally centered and healthy or you will never be able to help your child become healthy.

Remember, your child and family need you to be 100% together.  Let some things go for the greater peace.  Center yourself so you can notice when your child is doing well and offer praise.  When centered, you are flexible, patient, compassionate, and forgiving.   This draws people towards you, to look after you and care for you.  Go ahead, aim for sainthood.  Just starting down that path would relieve everyone else’s stress over you.

–Margaret

Your rights as the parent of a teen with a mental disorder

Your rights as the parent of a teen with a mental disorder

Parents have more rights than they think.

In a previous blog article on the subject of parents rights, I described how parents can be shocked to learn that their troubled teenager has the right to refuse treatment, Balancing teen rights with parent rights when the teen has a mental disorder.

What if your teen refuses treatment?  They get worse. Over months and years, if your child experiences serious symptoms of the disorder, such as schizophrenia, depression, or bipolar disorder, their brain loses cognitive function just as in Alzheimer’s disease.  Breaks in treatment means loss of brain function, and they become more vulnerable to multiple hospitalizations.  A troubled teenager can refuse treatment for any reason, and explaining the mental health risks to a person clouded by anxiety, depression, mania, or paranoia goes nowhere.

If a teenager had any other illness besides a behavioral disorder, refusing or withholding treatment would be considered child abuse and grounds for removing the child from the home.

Laws in many countries err on the side of protecting a person’s civil rights, but a teenager is not ready to take the responsibility that goes with these rights.(An excellent website on pertaining to Special Education Law is Wrightslaw. Click on “Topics from A to Z.”)

What if you’re teen becomes involved in crime?

  • For safety and health reasons, you have the right to search your teen’s room and remove or lock-up risky items like drugs, weapons, razors, pornography, or anything negatively affecting health. Be careful: this can destroy trust if done inappropriately. Inform your teen only if you find and remove unsafe items but otherwise leave everything else alone!
  • You can set any curfew time you think appropriate, and you do not have to adhere to curfew times used by law enforcement. Suggestion: compare with other parents’ curfews. Your teen will more likely follow rules that his or her peers follow.
  • You can monitor everything in your home, and on your computer and phone. You can limit cell phone services, and get GPS tracking on the phone and in the car. Prevention is more effective if your teen is informed about this, and it prevents others from taking advantage of your child, too.
  • You can report your concerns to anyone: teachers, other parents, and the local police precinct.
  • You can search for your child by calling other parents or businesses, or visiting their friends’ homes, or searching public places where your child might be.
  • You can and should call the police if your child runs away, or if your child is being harbored by someone who wants to ‘protect’ them. It is illegal to harbor runaways and those who do are subject to criminal charges.
  • You can and should notify anyone who encourages your teen to run away or who takes your teen with them without your permission, that this is custodial interference and subject to criminal charges.

What if your child’s mental health provider doesn’t share information you should know as the parent?

“Communication between providers and family members needs to be recognized as a clinical best practice.”*

  • You have the right to contact any mental health professional directly, and provide information relevant to your child, your family (e.g. marital conflict), and your family’s needs (e.g. bullied siblings). The professional can legally receive and document this information, but may not be able to discuss it with you.
  • You have the right to communicate freely and openly with a practitioner or teacher about anything you both already know—no confidentiality exists.
  • You have the right to schedule your own appointment with a professional without your teenager, and ask for information about how to get help for yourself and your family, and what kinds of help you may need.
  • You have the right to information about your child’s diagnosis and behavioral expectations, the course of your child’s treatment, and how you should interact with your child at home.
  • You have the right to a second opinion. And you have the right to change treatment or refuse treatment based on that second opinion.
  • You have to right to participate fully in medical decisions about your child. For example, you have the right to ask a doctor to stop or change medication or treatment that is creating behavior problems or side effects, which harm your ability to manage your teen.
  • You have the right to “information about the treatment plan, the safety plan, and progress toward goals of treatment.” *

What if your child’s provider claims they must keep all information confidential to protect patient privacy?

“While confidentiality is a fundamental component of a therapeutic relationship, it is not an absolute.”*

“Medical professionals can talk freely to family and friends, unless the patient objects after being notified of the intended communication. No signed authorization is necessary.”

–Susan McAndrew, Deputy Director of Health Information Privacy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Teachers and mental health professionals have leeway with confidentiality.  Professionals often misunderstand the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which defines what must be kept confidential. Many also misunderstand the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and state laws that govern confidentiality, so they tend to err on the side of confidentiality. However, the American Psychiatric Association states:

“Disclosures can sometimes be justified on the grounds that they are necessary to protect the patient. For instance, it is generally acceptable for a psychiatrist to warn a patient’s family or roommate when the patient is very depressed and has voiced suicidal thoughts”* or plans to harm others.

Professionals should provide explicit information about safety concerns: such as the warning signs of suicide; the need to adhere to medication and other treatment; an explanation of how your teen’s disorder can impair judgment; an explanation of reasons the teen must avoid substances like alcohol and drugs (including some over-the-counter drugs); and the need to remove the means for suicide, especially firearms, sharp objects, matches, chemicals, etc.

How doctors and therapists manage confidentiality

Their basic philosophy is to do what is in the best interest of their patient. For example, if the teen is in an abusive family situation or seeking care only on the condition of confidentiality, their privacy will be protected. “The default position is to maintain confidentiality unless the patient gives consent… However, [family members or friends] may need to be contacted to furnish historical information…” If the practitioner determines that the teen is (or is likely to become) harmful to himself or herself or to others, and will not consent, then they are… “justified in breaking confidentiality to the extent needed to address the safety of the patient and others.
–The American Medical Association, 2001, “The Principles of Medical Ethics With Annotations Especially Applicable to Psychiatry.”

A good professional will be honest with your teen, and tell them that they will communicate with parents based on what they already know. They will also tell your child that suicide or violence risk will always be communicated to you and/or an emergency medical service. From everyone’s perspective “It is always better to defend an inappropriate disclosure than to defend a failure to disclose with bad outcome (e.g. injury or death).”

Giving a teenager with behavioral problems the rights to make critical medical decisions is too risky!

I hope that families and mental health advocates can someday agree on how to maintain civil rights without letting a person control their future when they are not in their right mind. Until then, work with the system as best you can. I find that teachers and practitioners do their best to help families despite the restrictive civil rights and confidentiality mandates.  Good luck.

 

* Reference“The Clinician Should Maintain a Confidential Relationship With the Child or Adolescent While Developing Collaborative Relationships With Parents, Medical Providers, Other Mental Health Professionals, and Appropriate School Personnel,” developed by Jerry Gabay JD and Stewart S. Newman MD. The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the Oregon Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for their support of this effort.

Solid Wisdom for Parents of Troubled Children and Teens

Solid Wisdom for Parents of Troubled Children and Teens

 

Other parents have gone before you and faced the challenges that come with a very troubled child.  Get a jump on your task and learn from other’s experience. Wisdom is out there.  You can avoid common mistakes and the stress they cause everyone.

First things first:

You are not alone. All families experience the same fears no matter what the child’s challenges: guilt, anger, frustration, failure, and mental and physical exhaustion.

There is a way. The steps to finding peace in the home are the same for all families and all children regardless of diagnosis

You can start now. You can improve behavior without having a diagnosis, and the techniques work for the majority of difficult children.

There is reason for HOPE. Your child has the capacity to do well . With your support and treatment, difficult children improve.

Have realistic expectations: They may need extra support into their 20’s… but that’s OK. There’s time to catch up with their peers on education and life skills.

Plan ahead for a crisis, brainstorm options for an effective response and create a checklist. You can’t think clearly in a crisis that you didn’t see coming.

What helps your child in the long-term

Pay attention to his or her STRENGTHS not weaknesses. Always find something great about them.

Guide them to their gifts. Give them ample opportunity to do what they are already good at.  They may not be able to be well-rounded, so don’t force them.

What helps you day by day

  • Be your own cheerleader. Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control.”
  • Regularly talk through your feelings with others who understand and won’t judge.
  • Get a life, maintain personal interests, and occasionally set thoughts of the child aside without guilt.
  • Commit to doing the best you can, and accept that this enough – plan to let go someday.

You’ll know you’ve done a good job when your child is able to take responsibility for their own care. This is a monumental personal achievement!

How to calm down a tense situation 

In a neutral patient voice, give directions or requests. You will need to repeat yourself, calmly, several times. Your voice should not communicate strong emotions. Tone of voice, not words or volume, is what creates a bad response.

Don’t rush calm. Give the child plenty of time to unwind and settle. Calm is more important than quick.

Ensure there’s a calm place to go – a time-out space, even for you.

Bring in help – a therapy animal or another person who can calm your child if you are not able to calm down.

Reduce sensory chaos in your home:  noise, disorder, family upheavals, the intrusive stimulation of phones and excessive screen time.

Ideas for managing resistance or defiance

You want your child to be resistant to the negative things they’ll face in life. It represents willpower, and is a strength to cultivate… but only certain defiance.

Be quiet and LISTEN. If you respond, address how they feel underneath, not what they say.

Use reverse psychology–ask them to do something you don’t want them to do, so they can defy you and do the opposite.

Choose your battles. Let them think they’ve won on occasion.

For an ODD child, give multiple instructions at once, including things they do and don’t want to do. It becomes too much work to sort out what to defy and your child may do as told.

Actively ignore – for a child who demands inappropriate attention, stay in the vicinity but don’t respond, look away, act like you can’t hear. They can eventually give up. Works best for ages 2 – 12.

Mix it up – Be unpredictable. Give a reward sometimes but not all the time. Try new ways to use incentives or set boundaries and structure.

9 common parenting mistakes

If you’ve done any of these, don’t worry.  Forgive yourself.

1. Treat your household like a democracy. Your child should  have an equal say in decisions.

2. Find fault with them and tell them about it repeatedly. If they do something positive, it’s not good enough.

3. Pretend your child has no reason for their behavior. Ignore his or her needs or challenges. Are they being bullied? Are they having a hard time sleeping? Is your home too chaotic?

4. Make rules and only enforce them once in a while, or have consequence come later.

5. Treat your child like a rational mature adult.  Make long explanations to a 3-year-old about your reasoning. Assume a teen wants to be just like you.

6. Expect common sense from children who are too young (5), or from young adults with a long history of not showing common sense.

7. Keep trying the same things that still don’t work. Repeat yourself, scream, show how frustrated you are with them.

8. Jump to conclusions that demonize your child. “You are manipulative and deceitful,” “You don’t listen to me on purpose,” “I’m tired of your selfishness…”

9. Make your child responsible for your feelings. If you lose your cool, insist they apologize.

Not problem children, but problem symptoms 

When you observe these behaviors, remember that many of them are normal for children from early adolescence into adulthood. For troubled children in particular, expect these and don’t be frustrated by them.  What you focus on instead are things pertaining to their safety, education, and physical and emotional health.  If these are going along OK, you can work through the other problems with immaturity later.

Problem symptoms

Does not show common sense and is not influenced by reason and logic (irrational because are thinking is driven by: chemistry, neurological issues, past trauma…)

Has no instincts for self-preservation, and poor personal boundaries (brain disorders delay or limit their capacity for social learning and awareness)

Has no well-adjusted friends, or has friends who lead them in risky directions (they’re being bullied? good friends leave because of their behavior? risky friends share and understand their problems? risky friend are using them?)

Doesn’t respond to rewards and consequences (rational thinking competes with mental noise in their head: paranoia, anxiety, panic, fear, depression. ADD, ADHD)

Has limited character strengths of honesty, tolerance, respect for others, self-control (social learning is delayed or nonexistent)

Seems lazy or apathetic or lacking in willpower (clinical depression, marijuana use, or the result of taking their phone to bed)

Does not make plans they can realistically achieve, hangs on to fantasies (“magical thinking”, mania or hypomania, anxiety, ADHD…)

Acts younger than their peers, they will not be ready for adulthood by 18  (common to many normal children, your child may grow out of it or improve with treatment)

Lives in the here and now; doesn’t think about the past or future (also common to many children, they may grow out of it or improve with treatment) 

Does not notice or care about their effect on others.  (self-absorption is normal to some degree, but not in excess, instead it could be from:  depression, schizophrenia or psychosis, autism spectrum disorders, narcissism, or many other disorders)

Make these your priorities, in order

1. You and your primary relationship(s)

2. Basic needs and responsibilities: housing, clothing, food, income, health

3. Your challenging child or teen.

Ineffective:  This is often how parents end up spending their time when a child has a mental illness. Make the slices equal in size–not too much for one, not too little for others.

 

Good:  The really important foundations in your family need adequate time.  Don’t let your child dominate.  Everyone will do better when your household is stable.

Lean in.  One day at a time.  Deep breath.  Hope is. 

 

–Margaret

 

Good messages for siblings (and parents) of a troubled child or teen

Good messages for siblings (and parents) of a troubled child or teen

Your other children already know something is terribly wrong, and they deserve to hear the truth from you.

Most are old enough. They see other children in school and discover other families are nicer, so they don’t talk about their own. They are afraid to bring friends over to visit because of how their troubled brother or sister behaves–pestering them, upsetting them–then those friends talk about it with fellow students and their own parents. Word gets out about your family and people form opinions, especially teachers.

Siblings also feel unsafe and insecure. They never know what’s going to happen! Tell them the truth and trust them to understand and appreciate your candor.

  • You cannot cure a mental disorder for a sibling.
  • No one is to blame for the illness.
  • No one knows the future; your sibling’s symptoms may get worse or they may improve, regardless of your efforts.
  • If you feel extreme resentment, you are giving too much.
  • It is as hard for the ill sibling to accept the disorder as it is for you.
  • Separate the person from the disorder.
  • It is not OK for you to be neglected. You have emotional needs and wants, too. The needs of the ill person do not always come first.
  • The illness of a family member is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • You may have to revise your expectations of your sibling. They may never be ‘normal’ but it’s OK.
  • Acknowledge the remarkable courage your sibling may show when dealing with a mental disorder. Have compassion, they suffer and face a difficult life.
  • Strange or upsetting behavior is a symptom of the disorder. Don’t take it personally.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your sibling if he or she is thinking about hurting him or herself. Suicide is real.
  • If you can’t care for yourself, you can’t care for another.
  • It is important to have boundaries and to set clear limits. You should expect your sibling to show respect for others.
  • It is natural to experience many and confusing emotions such as grief, guilt, fear, anger, sadness, hurt, confusion, and more. You, not the ill person, are responsible for your own feelings.
  • You are not alone. Sharing your thoughts and feelings in a support group has been helpful and enlightening for many.
  • Eventually you may see the silver lining in the storm clouds: your own increased awareness, sensitivity, receptivity, compassion, and maturity. You may become less judgmental and self-centered, a better person.

Excerpted from “Coping Tips for Siblings and Adult Children of Persons with Mental Illness,” from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2001, www.nami.org.

Therapy types explained: DBT, CBT, CPS, and others

Therapy types explained: DBT, CBT, CPS, and others

The fantastic news about the brain is that it can heal itself by talking with someone! Ample evidence backs up effectiveness of therapy.

The therapist or psychologist who works with your child or teen will use a type of therapy or “modality” based on their symptoms or diagnosis, because some work better for mood disorders, some work better for defiant children, some work better for borderlines, and so forth. (In thought disorders like autism and schizophrenia, talk therapy has limits. Those on the autism spectrum need specialized interactions due to their processing issues. Those on the schizophreniform spectrum need medication to think logically before starting

Therapy models. Each type of therapy follows a model, and five are covered in this article. Your child’s therapist must be trained and practiced in any model they use. Why? It’s a matter of quality control. A therapist who has fidelity to a model (adheres to protocol) will help the most people most of the time, because that model has data to prove that the majority will benefit–the ones in the center section of the Bell Curve. (Therapists include psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists with MSW (Masters in Social Work), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and other licensure.)

Therapy models

CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy
CBT works when the child can examine their own feelings and make sense of them—the “cognitive” part. They learn to understand what affects them and why. The therapist will guide your child to create a list of options for themselves for when they face the next stressful situation that pops up in their lives. CBT helps a person think their way out of the confusion and have plans in place for appropriate actions. It works for mood disorders and anxiety, and some thought disorders if person has ‘insight’ (able to notice when they are behaving or thinking irrationally). CBT is one of the most widely used therapeutic models because it works for people who are relatively stable but enduring a difficult life situation (divorce, medical illness, job loss, and other big stressors).

DBT – dialectical behavioral therapy
DBT is unusual in that it can help anyone for any reason! The term “dialectical” describes how a patient learns to hold two opposing truths in their mind and respond effectively to the discomfort and emotions this causes. DBT is the one therapy model that can work for people with borderline personality disorder, who are considered the hardest to treat. It also helps those with mood dysregulation, those who’ve thought about or attempted suicide, or those with uncontrollable and negative responses to the world, such as oppositional defiant disorder. DBT relies less on personal self-examination and analysis, and instead concentrates on self calming, tolerating stress without overreacting, accurately perceiving the nature of a conflict, and communicating with others appropriately. Anyone can benefit from DBT. Notice how commonly people hear bad news and immediately expect the worst, then act to address the worst possible outcome? Does your child do this, only to extremes?

EMDR – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
The goal of EMDR therapy is to help a person process extremely distressing memories of trauma and mitigate their torturous subconscious influence so children and adults can adapt and cope when memories are triggered in the future. EMDR is used for people with PTSD (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse) and other traumas such as from war, accidents, and major disasters. The therapy process uses rhythmic stimuli as a distraction during the precise moments when the person relives the traumatic memory—eye movement back and forth (by following a swinging object or a therapist’s hand), clapping, or listening to tones switching from ear to ear through headphones. The person does not have to talk about the horrible memory, so EMDR is less stressful—so important for a trauma survivor! EMDR works but there are no acceptable explanations. It is based on a belief that the memory and associated stimuli of the event must be processed to remove it from “an isolated memory network” where it creates havoc.

Parents as therapists

There are two proven models of therapy that are taught to parents to practice with their children in the home. Like the other models, they don’t work for every child, but they work for most children with a certain range of behaviors, rages, resistance, and physical violence, which can be caused by ODD, ADHD, and depression/bipolar disorders.

CPS – collaborative problem solving
CPS can be learned by anyone to manage an intensely frustrated child who goes into uncontrollable fits or tantrums, and the parent can do nothing to calm them down. The fits may last hours, and must run out of steam on their own. Afterwards, the child is often remorseful. Why? Their brain is “chronically inflexible” and has difficulty with the unexpected, switching from one situation to another or one plan to another. Using CPS, a parent doesn’t enforce rules per se, but negotiates with child so that they together come up with a win-win solution. This is very counterintuitive! The parent does not give away their authority, but offers the child an acceptable choice. For example, if a child can’t get a red jacket because there aren’t any in their size, and they must have red (!), the parent asks the child if they want to order one and wait 2 weeks, or if they will accept another color. This seems fair to the child because they have a say, and much easier on the parent because the child accepts the outcome they’ve chosen.

PMT – parent management training
PMT refers to a proven intensive educational program for parents to teach them skills for managing extremely difficult children, especially those with ODD. PMT helps parents assert consistency and predictability at home and in school, and promote positive social behavior in their child. The parents are also trained to change their own behavior towards their child, and taught how to analyze different home/school situations, “then apply moment-to-moment positive reinforcement or punishment” (called interventions) based on what is happening. The punishments are humane, such as taking time outs. It is hard on the parents, but works for children with serious behavior problems in addition to ODD: Conduct disorder, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders.

What makes a good therapist? Because multiple models are out there, a really skilled therapist will figure out which model your child needs once they get to know them, and they will apply parts of different models depending on your child’s individual challenges. That same skilled therapist will also be a cheerleader for your child, helping them feel good about themselves (and you), helping them discover their talents, and helping them to stay committed to their need for self-care. This is the very definition of a good therapist! Therapy is hard to take for anyone, but your child will trust a good therapist if they feel they have their best interests. Chemistry is important. If your child doesn’t like the therapist or make progress, it’s worth spending the time to find someone else who’s a better match. If the therapist has professional ethics; they will recognize they are not a fit and recommend someone else.

I know of a 10-year old child whose therapist dragged out appointments for a year with zero progress or results. From the start, the child didn’t like her and simply refused to talk with her. And this child, now 11, refuses any therapy because “it’s boring and a waste of time.” What an unfortunate consequence!

How you know you have a good therapist. A good therapist will be able to discover something valuable that brings light on your child’s situation after the very first session. They should ask you for background information about your child, and listen to you when you talk about recent problematic situations. They cannot talk to you about your child’s therapy, but they can encourage you to partner with them, and should recognize your need (your family’s need) for your child to function as normally as possible. You can ask to have therapy together with your child if its appropriate. If the therapist can’t connect meaningfully with your child after a few weeks, ask them about this. If you have any doubts about the therapist, share them, and expect to have a thoughtful, respectful explanation.

Which therapy is best for your child?

Seek a therapy provider with knowledge of all of them, and with experience treating children and teens. Ask about a specialty when you make the initial contact, and ask about a model you think fits your child’s behaviors (based on their descriptions). You can get a one-time assessment from a therapist for an opinion on which model to use. The best way to find a good therapist is through personal referrals: your child’s doctor or psychiatrist, support groups, school counselors, and other parents.

Coping with grief when a child loses their “self” or life due to mental illness

Coping with grief when a child loses their “self” or life due to mental illness

In the US military, the Purple Heart medal is awarded to a soldier who is wounded in battle, or who later dies of those wounds.

In the years of writing this blog, I have offered encouragement and hope for parents.  But hope and information cannot soften the impact of this horrible statistic:  The mortality rates of teens with mental disorders are 3 to 4 times more deadly than most childhood cancers, and the statistics only measure those deaths by suicide:  Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults.

Death by suicide seems especially tragic because it appears to be a choice, and while we tell ourselves that mental illness is the cause, it’s not the same as a car accident being the cause or a tumor being the cause.  Unsuccessful suicide attempts are no less traumatic, like a cancer that keeps returning, because you can’t come to terms with a “maybe.”  A parent is held hostage by the anticipation of loss, a relentless moment-by-moment fear that your child will attempt again in the future until they are successful.  It’s an emotional ride one’s subconscious never ever forgets, and it becomes your PTSD.  You can carry it quietly with you for decades, until a sneak attack, when you find yourself overreacting to a news story, a scene in a movie, or a conversation with a friend.

My PTSD ambushed me once.  I was attending an evening class when suddenly a person next to me slammed down her cell phone, exclaimed “Oh my God!” and quickly grabbed up her things and dashed out.  I followed to check on her and see if I could help with something.  As she speed-walked to her car, she said her daughter had texted that she swallowed a poison because she was upset, but is now sorry and wants help.  I got back to the classroom in shock, trembling, and completely unable to focus.  It had been many years since I had received a similar message, but it felt like it had just happened again that moment.

You are not alone if you’ve ever secretly felt it would be a relief if your child ended their life, bringing peace to you both.  (And you wouldn’t be a bad parent, either)

There are other kinds of “deaths” to grieve

You face a death of hope when child with a serious mental disorder that takes a long slow trajectory through addictions, high risk behaviors, and falls apart in life’s many insults.  Families like ours bear witness but can’t intervene, or interventions don’t work.  All we can do is wait and hope and do what we can for our child, day by day, and banish thoughts of a different future.  I consoled myself with the knowledge that my child was getting by, and “getting b” was enough.

Another type of death caregivers face is the loss of their child’s “self” as they knew it, and their future as they imagined it.  A mentally ill child or teen can morph from a fresh young person in a world that is wide open to them, to a scary being we don’t recognize as our own and cannot understand–a stranger, a changeling, a flame snuffed out too soon.  It should not be this way.  It is unfair.  It is a tragedy.  You start healing the grief when you are able to make the commitment to do the best you can anyway.  YOU HAVE EARNED YOUR PURPLE HEART.

Any serious medical condition can devastate and traumatize a child’s family, but those with mental disorders impose a complicated trauma that’s hardly possible to resolve.  The following stories are actual examples.  Ask yourself:  how does one be a loving responsible parent in these situations?

–  When her daughter attempted suicide, an overwhelmed single mother discovered that her son had been sexually abusing and cutting her for 3 years, right under her nose.  The guilt she felt was quadrupled by the guilt laid on her by others.  She didn’t know how to go forward as a mother from here, after loving but failing both children.

–  A teen girl attempted to hang herself in a very public place, and many people found out before her parents.  The parents’ first trauma was the call from the emergency room, their second was from the shower of doubt others laid on them:  Where were you?  Why didn’t you help her before it got this far?  What did you do to drive her to this?

–  One couple devoted themselves to raising a difficult boy they adopted when he was 2.  At 9, after years of problems, he sexually assaulted a playmate, and they found themselves disgusted and repulsed.  The brokenhearted mother said she had long ago accepted that her boy would never be normal, but this was different.  She didn’t want him anymore.  She really really didn’t want him.  Some parents took their troubled children to Nebraska.*

You are not alone if you’ve ever secretly wanted to give your child away. You are not alone if you’re DONE.  (And you would not be a bad parent for thinking this.)

Consciously keep the good things alive.  Display photos of the real child you know or knew, the one without the brain problems.  Keep their writing or artwork or tests scored A+.  Other parents experiencing a loss do this, whether the losses are from death by disease, or death of self due to brain damage from an accident.  Speak often of the good things they were or are, as any proud parent might, keep the memories alive.

Get out of your trance and take yourself back to here and now.  When you notice yourself caught up in a train of thought and obsessing on your fear or paranoia, get back in the room—get back to driving that car or attending that meeting or straightening the house.  Get back to noticing the people you love, get back to making those helpful plans.  Central to the philosophy of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is the concept of “Mindfulness.”

Remember this wisdom: take one day at a time.  You can handle one day, you can keep cool, do what must be done, feel accomplishment, in one day. Don’t think farther ahead.  Since you are the linchpin, the one holding up the world, you probably don’t have the luxury of taking a break, and may have to hold things together until there is time for your own healing.  The one-day-at-a-time approach is imperative.

When you’re leg is broken, you need a crutch.  When you’re heart and mind are broken, use the “crutch” of a medication for depression, anxiety, or sleep.  Do other healing things for yourself, whether exercise or therapy or asking for comfort from friends.  Acknowledge your wounds and admit this is too much handle.  You have earned your scars from bravery, so wear them as the badges of a hero.

A tragic event does not mean a tragic life.  I know a mother whose son completed suicide as a young adult in his 20’s.  She seemed remarkably cheerful and at peace with this.  She spoke lovingly of him often, and her email address comprised his birth date.  She continually did her grief work, was active in a suicide bereavement group, and often offered to visit with families facing such a loss.

— Margaret

*  In the United States in 2008, the state of Nebraska enacted a “Safe Haven” law to reduce the tragedy of infant child abuse and neglect.  The law allowed anyone to anonymously leave a child at a hospital with the promise that child would be cared for.  But something unexpected happened.  Parents from around the nation drove hundreds and hundreds of miles to leave their troubled older children instead.  Nebraskans eventually amended the law with strict age limits for infants only.