10 Ways Parents and Teachers Can Work Together for a Child With Mental Illness

Our son Cody began presenting signs something was “wrong” at a very young age. The first “red flag” went up when he was just 18 months old. By the time he was 2 we were becoming more and more concerned, but as new parents we assumed our “Terrible Twos” were just exceptionally terrible.

But the “Terrible Twos” turned into the “Horrible Threes” and the pre-school years were even worse.

Exhausted, we decided to enroll Cody in a pre-school program. As an only child, we thought interaction with other kids would be a good idea. We found a reputable program and signed Cody up. We were thrilled.

But almost immediately, I began receiving phone calls.

“Cody is in trouble.”

“Cody didn’t follow directions.”

“Cody was aggressive.”

“Cody wasn’t able to be still during story time.”

“Cody was written up again today.”

“Parents are complaining about Cody.”

And finally….

“Cody can no longer attend our program.”

And so we tried another school.

And another.

And another after that.

We got kicked out of every one.

I was constantly being told was how difficult Cody was and that I had no control over my child.

But they couldn’t control him either.

I began to internalize the criticism and before long was convinced I was a terrible mom. All the other kids behaved. Why couldn’t I get it right?

My self-esteem was shot.

I can only imagine how Cody must have felt.

I knew Cody was a challenge. I lived with him. (Believe me, I knew!) But I needed respite and I needed help! If I couldn’t handle him and the professionals couldn’t handle him, what were we supposed to do?

Twelve years and multiple hospitalizations later, Cody is now 16 years old. He has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and ADHD, he is oppositional and defiant and he has sensory processing issues. Cody is a sick kiddo, but he is also very smart, very mechanical, incredibly loving and kind. He is artistic and has a great sense of humor. We adore Cody.

And over the years, as we’ve navigated our nation’s failed mental health care system and worked with educators to help our son, I’ve learned some important lessons. Thankfully, I no longer hang my head in guilt and shame. In fact, I am proud to say I’ve learned to effectively advocate for my child. With the help of our school district, we have finally found some success.

Parents and teachers, this is for you. I want to encourage you. You all play a significant role in the lives of children affected by brain disorders. Your partnership is critical to the success of the child. Here are a few of the most valuable lessons I have learned.


To parents:

1.  Admit there’s a problem.

Parents, if you have a child with special needs of any kind, but especially if your child has a mental illness, the best thing you can do for your child is admit something is wrong. So many parents walk in such grief, guilt and shame that they refuse to admit there’s a problem. By walking in denial you are hurting yourself but more importantly, you are hurting your child. There is no shame in having a mental illness. If your child had cancer, you would do everything you could to help them. Mental illness is no different. Don’t let it be different. If your child has a brain disorder, love them, grieve for them and be honest about it. Help is hard to come by, but it is available. Admit there’s a problem and seek help.

2. Partner with your teachers and administrators.

Once you have determined and accepted there is a problem, your school administrators and teachers must become your best friends. Be kind to them. Encourage them. Talk openly with them about your child. Ask them how you can help them and ask for their advice. Work together. They are your team. You need them and they need you. Most importantly, your child needs you all. Work closely with your school.

3. Remember you know your child best.

As parents, we naturally want to put our trust in the “professionals” and the “experts.” We rely on them to know what is best for our children. But over the years I have discovered even the most well-intentioned professionals do not know my child as well as I do. Listen and heed their advice when it seems appropriate, but if something does not feel right or sound right, remember, you are an expert too! In fact, you are the expert when it comes to your child. Be kind and professional but speak up confidently. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinions and concerns.

4. Be patient. 

Working with the education and mental health care systems is a process. Mental illness is not treated like any other illness in our nation and as a result our school districts have become responsible. This is wrong. But for now, it’s the system we have to work with. I sincerely believe in most cases, school districts really do try to do what is best for the child. However, they have a process they have to follow, which includes a lot of hoops and red tape to jump through. Follow up with them, but be patient. Work with them, not against them. Earn their trust and let the system do its job. In the end, they have a responsibility to provide a free and appropriate education for your child. Stay on top of them, but be patient and kind. If you work with them, they will work harder for you.

5. Say thank you. 

Teaching is a thankless job. Teaching kids with special needs and mental illness takes thankless to a whole new level. Be sure to thank your teachers. Praise them when you see they’ve gone the extra mile, bring them a Starbucks to start their day and let them know you appreciate them. A simple “thank you” will go a long way.

To teachers:

1. Thank you.

Teachers and administrators, you are overworked and underpaid. Your job is thankless and I know you sometimes feel like a babysitting service instead of professional educators. Your classrooms are overcrowded, sometimes un-air-conditioned and at the end of the day you still have to go home and grade papers. You are important and valuable and while it may not always feel like it, you are appreciated. Thank you.

2. Join our team. 

Teachers and administrators, we need you! Our children with mental illness learn differently than other kids and their illness makes things very difficult at home. Caring for our children will require a team approach. We need you to be on our team. Be gentle with us. In many cases we are living in 24/7 crisis. We are scared, ashamed and we feel alone. We may make your life difficult sometimes, but it is only because we want to help our children and the system does not make that easy. We need you, but more importantly our children need you. You play a vital role in our children’s success. Please join our team!

3. You make a difference, please know the difference.

Teachers and administrators, you’re on the front lines with our kids. Your help is critical when it comes to caring for our children with mental illness. Mental illness is real. Perhaps you know this, I hope you do, but I need to say it again anyway: Mental illness is real. It’s not just a behavioral problem or something the parents are doing wrong. It’s an actual medical condition that requires medication, just like heart disease or diabetes. I cannot begin to tell you how often I have been berated for bad parenting when my child actually has a diagnosable mental illness. Your willingness to understand and know the difference between behavioral problems and actual mental illness is critical to our families. Please help us help our children. Be aware and know the difference. If you don’t know, then talk with us or ask your superiors to provide additional training.

4. Listen to us.

We recognize you are the professionals and the ones with the degrees. We value your input and we trust you to help us help our children. But just as we respect you, we need you to respect us. We truly know our children better than anyone else. Our insights can be a huge help to you. Please listen and take our concerns seriously. Most parents are genuinely well-intentioned. Let’s work together!

5. Don’t give up on our kids. 

The teachers who stand out are the ones who gave Cody a chance. Kids who have mental illnesses are difficult. Believe me, as parents we know! But our children with mental illness are important too. They deserve a chance. So even though your classroom is overcrowded and you’re tired from all the state testing, don’t be afraid to think outside the box to find ways for our children to participate. And most importantly, focus on the positives. Give our kids praise. Give us praise! Your kindness and encouragement will go a long, long way.

To parents and teachers:

Please be willing to admit some kids just need more help than parents can provide. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not the fault of the parents, the child or the school. The child has an illness. Let’s treat it that way. Your willingness to work together and to encourage and support one another is crucial for every child’s success. When a child has a mental illness, there are no easy answers. But together, we can work better and smarter to ensure that every child has a chance.

Cody’s program completion from residential treatment in Utah.

A version of this post originally appeared on Bold Faith Ministries.

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4 Tough Things to Talk About When You Have a Chronic Illness

Illnesses can take away so much of your privacy and make you feel a bit fragile. I’ve had several chronic illnesses since I was little, but no matter how old I get, there are still certain topics that are hard to discuss with others. Four of the biggest things I’ve found people don’t like to talk about are the effects illnesses can have on mental health, way of life, finances and relationships.

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1. The Effect on Mental Health

A diagnosis is a new and life-changing experience, whether it’s acute or chronic. If it’s a chronic illness, it’s something you’ll deal with for the rest of your life. There may be several emotions that pop up, such as fear, shame, grief, possibly jealousy, depression and anxiety. It’s common, but it isn’t always a comfortable topic to bring up with your friends, significant other or even your doctor. But your feelings should never be ignored; they’re an important part of being sick, not something you should have to bottle up continuously or face alone.

At times, it can feel like you’re just trying to keep your head above the water while everyone around you is swimming just fine. Feeling hopeless, alone or depressed can be common, and with help from professionals, these feelings can be helped. It’s what you choose to do about it these feelings that counts.

You may not want to admit you’re struggling emotionally because then you’d be admitting it out loud and to yourself (which sometimes feels even scarier). But your mental health is no less important than your physical health. You wouldn’t be afraid to ask for help with physical symptoms like pain or nausea, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help with any emotional symptoms.


2. How Your Way of Life Might Change

Chronic illnesses completely change the way you live, but there are many different resources that help you adapt. A shower chair to help with fatigue; a walker, cane or wheelchair can help you safely get around; grabbers make it so you don’t have to reach too high or too low to get something; can openers help open difficult jars; stair lifts help you go up and down the stairs; and many other inventions that can help you live more efficiently.

If it’s gotten to the point where it’s not safe for you to live alone or be by yourself, there are always assisted living facilities for people of all ages to live while still being independent. Safety is the most important thing.


3. The Expense of Illness

Illness is one of the most expensive things you will face. Of course, insurance helps, but they might not cover everything until you reach your out-of-pocket deductible. There might also be co-pays for each doctor visit, which really start to add up when you see eight doctors a week.

Even if insurance helps out, you may not be able to afford a medication you need. You may have to make a choice between the prescriptions that help keep you alive and whether you go to the grocery store that week. Missing out on that medication makes you sicker, creating more doctor’s appointments and more co-pays. It’s a vicious cycle.

4. The Impact on Relationships

Illness has a huge impact on relationships and can be one of the hardest things to deal with. The strain they can place on relationships between friends, family members and even significant others make you feel upset or alone.

Plans often have to be cancelled because you aren’t feeling well and going out to do something would make you much worse. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or that you don’t want to do anything. It just means your body isn’t prepared for that right now and you have to reschedule.

Hospital stays are far too frequent. Having a best friend who understands this and doesn’t mind coming over to watch a movie with you or just ask if they can do anything to help is one of the best things you can have. The times you have to cancel because of an ER visit are when you need friends the most. Compassion doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated, trust me.

Illnesses change your life, but they don’t change your strength and bravery.


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Why I Want My Daughter to Curse

No, not right now. My daughter’s 2 and a half years old, silly people! Right now I want her to spout goofy things or get all serious like she did the other day when she said, “I love you, Daddy.” I’m not ready for her to go all Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy or George Carlin on me, though come to think of it, it’d be pretty cool if Sienna started dissecting language the way the great Carlin did.

No, I just don’t want her to become like me, a person so scared of being judged that he’s unable to say the four-letter words that comfortably fill the public lexicon.

dad with daughter working on computer

I’m not ready for Sienna to have her mom’s sailor mouth, but eventually, when she’s a teen, I don’t want her to be afraid of speaking the language of her classmates (yes, we’ll have the comedic swear jar). Once she reaches adulthood, I hope to be ready for her to speak such words in my presence as part of normal conversation because the reality is that cursing is ordinary and sometimes, often even, acts as a release for pent-up stress.

I wish I had that release, but I’m terrified of what people will think of me if I curse – fear of judgment, just another aspect of experiencing depression. I’ve been trying to figure out where this particular one comes from and I believe it’s from my father, who in turn got it from his mother. My grandmother doesn’t curse at all and doesn’t believe either of her children, their spouses, any of her grandchildren or their spouses use words like s–t or f–k… ever. She lives in a perpetual dreamworld, a life of denial, because as far as I know, just about all of them curse. My late grandfather, teller of bawdy jokes, probably cursed, though never in front of my grandmother. My dad? I assume he did when he was younger in front of friends and while in the National Guard. I know he does at work sometimes. I heard him once when I temped at his office. But he seems uncomfortable with it, like my grandmother’s directly in his brain.

My dad never cursed in front of me when I was growing up and seemed terribly uneasy when my mom did. And I think I took that discomfort and internalized it to the point where I can’t curse in front of anyone… not even my wife. I think I feel if I utter a f–king this or f–king that or call someone an a-hole, my dad will know and think less of me. To be honest, I imagine everyone will think less of me. And that’s ludicrous. Why would anyone care? But just like with my anxiety, it manifests physically, twisting my stomach, weighing on my chest, my veins feeling like they’ve been shot with cold radioactive dye. I even have trouble writing the words, as you can see by my incessant use of hyphens.

I tried to change when I went to college. I went in there thinking that I’d start cussing like Al Swearington on “Deadwood” (OK, “Deadwood” wasn’t on yet, but you get my meaning). I wanted to create a new identity. I wanted to be normal. So I tried. Freshman year I said something about my roommate to my best friend, something like my roommate’s “getting off” on being a jerk and my best friend’s eyes widened to the point where I thought they’d burst.

“You’ve never said anything like that before!” he shouted. I know he was proud, but I took it as criticism – and I didn’t even really use a swear word! And that was it for me in college. I couldn’t curse after that. Freshman year became a pathetic war with hallmates trying to get me to utter obscenities.

I’ll never forget Chad, a tall, lanky, long-haired blond fratboy who’d corner me daily.

“Say s–t,” he’d say, but I wouldn’t. “Come on. Just say it.”

And he’d laugh when I couldn’t because at that point he’d win. They’d all win. I’d be cursing for them, not for me. And the pressure in my head built.

When alone, profanity swirls through my head and expletives spout from my mouth. If driving alone, I’m not immune to deriding a bad driver with a “motherf–ker” or even give someone the middle finger. When I’m alone, vulgarity comes easy, but my jaws clamp in front of others. “Friggin’” I’ll say. “Morons. Jerks. Idiots.” For the longest time I wouldn’t even say “hell” or “damn.”

Eighteen years post-college and I’ve cried in front of my therapist about my inability to curse, tears streaming, face scrunched and reddened with embarrassment and anger.

“You’re safe here,” she’ll say, leaning toward me as I twist myself into a pretzel. “Let go. Say f–k.”

I sputter like Fonzie trying to admit he’s wrong. “Fu…fu…fu…fu.” But that’s as far as I’ll get.

“I’ll leave the room,” she’ll say. “I won’t hear it. Just say it.”

And she’ll leave, the door clicking. I’ll sit there furious with myself, face blotchy, hands tightened into fists. The room dulled and quiet. Sometimes I’ll whisper it, sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. No one’s there to hear me so I’ve still failed. “F–k” and “s–t” and so many others remain missing from my daily speech.

I have, however, added some over the years. For some reason I can now say “hell” and “damn” and even “bastard” and “son of a b*tch.” It took 30-plus years for me to say those words out loud in front of people. I’m not sure if I say them in front of my dad. I know I don’t say them in front of my grandmother. But I still feel so much internal pressure when it comes to swearing, like the world would stop, a collective gasp catching in everyone’s throats, fingers pointing, judging, always judging, if I dare utter the f-word in front of another person. And I don’t want that for Sienna. I never want that for her. The cycle that began with my grandmother, passed to my father and then to me seemingly by osmosis will end. I want my daughter to curse.

I look forward to having a swear jar and by the time Sienna’s old enough, I hope to be adding a few coins to it myself.

dad and daughter

A version of this post originally appeared on Raising Sienna.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: What’s one secret about you or your loved one’s disability and/or disease that no one talks about? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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When the People I Came to for Help Said I Didn’t ‘Look’ Sick

When you think of someone who has a mental illness, what comes to mind? Is she well-groomed and stylish? Disheveled and dirty?

How we look often gives people an impression about our health, and it’s a common misconception that to have a mental illness, one must be unkempt.

I remember my first time visiting a counselor. I was in my second year of college and had just been caught by my best friend with cuts all along my arms. I admitted I was having suicidal thoughts and my friend was scared for me. I didn’t know at the time, but I was experiencing a major depressive episode.

I didn’t even know what depression was then. I was 18, living away from home at a university that had once been fun, in a program I once enjoyed, but all of that had fallen away. I hated everyone there. I didn’t understand how everyone could party so much. I didn’t get how my roommates were so messy. I couldn’t keep up with the demanding reading schedule of my classes, and I was struggling with a long-distance relationship. No wonder I was feeling depressed. Some people could’ve dealt with the pressure of that life. Some people could’ve adapted. But what I’ve learned, after 10 years with my mental illness, is that I don’t handle stress well. Stress aggravates my condition, which interferes with my sleep, and as soon as I’m not sleeping, I know my mental health will quickly move downhill.

So my friend, being the smart cookie she is, forced me into university counseling services the next day for an emergency appointment.

Oddly, I remember exactly what I wore that day. I paired my jeans with a fuchsia pink lace cardigan (that covered the cuts) with a matching fuchsia camisole underneath. I had never seen a counselor before in my life, and I was shocked when she pointed out my outfit.

“Well, you’re dressed nicely today. You don’t look like you’re struggling.”

Oh, I’m sorry, should I have shown up in pajamas with greasy hair and body odor? Is that what we think a person experiencing mental illness looks like? How was I supposed to look?

And it wouldn’t be the only time this happened to me.

Many years later, I was familiar with the mental health system and had seen various psychiatrists and psychologists. I had already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experiencing another depressive episode, but also dealing with extreme panic attacks. Once, I melted down in a grocery store on an errand to buy napkins for my mother. There were simply too many choices and my heart started racing, I couldn’t breathe, and the aisles were closing in on me. The cacophony of the store was overwhelming and the lights were too bright. I don’t even remember if I bought napkins in the end or if I just ran out of the store.  I had also lost the ability to order food in a restaurant. Whenever I went out for dinner with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, I just ordered whatever he did.

I was incapacitated by anxiety. Coupled with the crippling depression and suicidal thoughts, the only thing I could think to do was admit myself into a hospital. When I spoke with the admitting psychiatrist who had dealt with my case, he said, “You don’t look like you have anxiety.”

How was I supposed to look in that moment? The anxiety had passed. Should I be crying? Panting? Suffocating, like I had been in the grocery store? I was severely depressed, but I wasn’t in the middle of a panic attack. In a few words, this doctor dismissed me based on how I presented myself to him in that moment. He made me feel like sh*t. He made me feel like I was pretending to have severe anxiety (because being admitted into the hospital was something someone did for fun!).


Over the years, I have realized that I use clothes and makeup as armor to protect myself from the assuming eyes of doctors and society. When I’m in the depths of depression or dealing with severe anxiety, I ensure that I am well put together with a face full of makeup so no one knows how I’m really feeling.

Except maybe this works too well if even doctors don’t believe me when I’m asking for help. It’s like they expect a neon sign blinking above my head saying: “She is experiencing bipolar depression. She is having extreme panic attacks.” Or they expect me to show up un-showered in sweats and matted hair. That’s just not me.

Every day we make assumptions about people based on what they’re wearing. But people, and especially doctors, need to remember that there’s no “look” to mental illness. Anyone can have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personal disorder or whatever else. Just because I don’t look sick, doesn’t mean that I don’t have a mental illness.

A version of this post originally appeared on Mad Girl’s Lament.

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What’s Your Score on the Mental Illness Stigma Quiz?

If you’ve ever wondered where the stigma towards those with mental illness comes from, the answer is complicated. It’s almost like asking where differences in racial prejudice, political views, religious preference or sports team allegiances come from. It’s difficult to tease apart — we are influenced, and all too easily, by our family, friends, the media, our culture and environment, inaccurate stereotypes and a whole host of other factors.

Rather than figure out where stigma begins, it’s easier to become more aware of what it is and when it occurs. So how do we become more aware of stigma? Let’s start by looking at ourselves. Here’s a brief self-assessment quiz on stigma and mental illness.

True or False:

1) There’s no real difference between the terms “mentally ill” and “has a mental illness.”

2) People with mental illness tend to be dangerous and unpredictable.

3) I would worry about my son or daughter marrying someone with a mental illness.

4) I’ve made fun of people with mental illness in the past.

5) I don’t know if I could trust a coworker who has a mental illness.

6) I’m scared of or stay away from people who appear to have a mental illness.

7) People with a mental illness are lazy or weak and just need to “get over it.”

8) Once someone has a mental illness, they will never recover.

9) I would hesitate to hire someone with a history of mental illness.

10) I’ve used terms like “crazy,” “psycho,” “nut job” or “retarded” in reference to someone with a mental illness

The scoring is simple: one point for every true response. If you scored a zero, congratulate yourself. You’re already on your way to becoming a stigma fighter! The higher your score, though, the more likely it is you’ve had thoughts, feelings or behaviors that can contribute to increased stigma toward people with mental illness.

Now you may be saying, “Wait a minute, I didn’t sign up to be a stigma fighter.” Well, let’s put this into perspective. Have you already signed on to make sure your kids and other passengers in your car wear their seat belts? Did you ever sign on to collect your neighbor’s mail while they were on vacation? Have you ever signed on to give a donation to your favorite cause or charity? If so, then you can do this. Educate yourself about the ways to reduce stigma around mental illness. It’s easier to take a look at ourselves first before we try to change the rest of the world.

RELATED: 5 Easy Ways to Reduce Mental Illness Stigma

A version of this post originally appeared on David Susman’s site.

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5 Easy Ways to Reduce Mental Illness Stigma

Tune into any conversation about mental illness and addiction, and it won’t be very long until you hear the term “stigma.” Stigma has various definitions, but they all refer to negative attitudes, beliefs, descriptions, language or behavior. In other words, any disrespectful, unfair or discriminatory patterns in how we think, feel, talk and behave toward individuals experiencing a mental illness.

But it doesn’t take much effort to reduce stigma in your own backyard. In fact, the rules of the road are quite simple. Here are five simple steps you can follow to become a stigma fighter:

1) Don’t label people who have a mental illness.

Don’t say, “He’s bipolar” or “She’s schizophrenic.” People are people, not diagnoses. Instead, say, “He has bipolar disorder” or “She has schizophrenia.” And say “has a mental illness” instead of “is mentally ill.” All of this is known as “person-first” language, and it’s far more respectful, for it recognizes that the illness doesn’t define the person.

2) Don’t be afraid of people with mental illness.

Sure, they may sometimes display unusual behaviors when their illness is more severe, but people with mental illness aren’t necessarily more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Don’t fall prey to other inaccurate stereotypes, such as the deranged killer or the weird coworker depicted in the movies.

3) Don’t use disrespectful terms for people with mental illness.

In a research study, when British 14-year-olds were asked to come up with over 250 terms to describe mental illness, the majority were negative. These terms, like “psycho” and “crazy,” are far too common in our everyday conversations. Also, be careful about using “diagnostic” terms to describe behavior, like “that’s my OCD” or “she’s so borderline.” Given that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental illness, it’s likely you may be offending someone and not be aware of it.

4) Don’t blame people with mental illness for their mental illnesses.

It would be silly to tell someone just to “buckle down” and “get over” cancer, and the same applies to mental illness. Don’t assume that someone is OK just because they look or act OK or sometimes smile or laugh. Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can often be hidden, but the person can still be in considerable internal distress. Provide support and reassurance when you know someone is having difficulty managing their illness.

5) Be a role model.

Stigma is often fueled by lack of awareness and inaccurate information. Model these stigma-reducing strategies through your own comments and behavior and politely teach them to your friends, family, coworkers and others in your sphere of influence. Spread the word that treatment works and recovery is possible. Changing attitudes takes time, but repetition is the key, so keep getting the word out to bring about a positive shift in how we treat others.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said it nicely: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” Take the next step. Adopt these simple tools and you can help move the needle in the direction of getting rid of stigma once and for all.

A version of this post originally appeared on David Susman’s site.

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