5 Tips for Talking to Kids About Mental Illness

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If you’re a parent and you or another family member has experienced mental health concerns, you might be worried about talking to your children about them. Should you discuss it at all? If you do, what should you say?

Your first reaction may be to avoid talking about it all together. However, I’ve learned as a clinical psychologist that when you talk openly about these issues, it can teach your kids to cope with greater understanding. Also, increased awareness can lead to greater compassion, which can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

When you do decide to open the door to a conversation with your kids about mental illness, here are several important points that can help you manage this situation with greater confidence.

1. Cover the basics.

It’s often helpful to start with simple facts about mental illnesses to dispel some of the common myths surrounding them. For example:

-Mental illnesses are “real” illnesses, just like diabetes or epilepsy.

-Mental illnesses are very common; 1 out of every 4 adults will have one.

-It’s OK to talk about having a mental illness; it doesn’t have to be a secret.

-There are treatments for mental illnesses.

-Most people with mental illnesses can and do get better.

2. Provide reassurance.

Kids might be worried about their family member who has a mental illness, and may even feel responsible for the person’s difficulties. Offer reassurance and reduce their fears by telling them:

-It’s not your fault your family member has a mental illness.

-You can’t “catch” a mental illness from someone else.

-You won’t necessarily get the same illness as your family member when you grow up.

-It’s not up to you to “cure” the person living with a mental illness.

3. Keep the child’s age and level of maturity in mind.

How you talk about mental health issues will vary greatly for children of different ages and developmental levels. For example, a very mature 10-year-old may be able to understand a parent’s mental illness better than an immature 13-year-old.

For very young children, you’ll want to give clear and simple information. Many teens turn to their peers for information, so they might be misinformed. Make sure you’re specific and responsive when they have questions.

4. Make sure your kids feel safe and secure. 

No matter what age your children are, make sure they feel safe, secure and comfortable when discussing mental health issues. Watch their reactions, let them ask questions and slow down or repeat information if they appear confused. If the conversation upsets them, you can always stop and come back later after they’ve had time to process some of the information.

5. If things become difficult, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you’re unsure about how to talk about mental health issues with your children or notice they’re becoming overly distressed, seek assistance from a mental health professional. Child or family therapy can be very helpful in these circumstances. It’s also a good idea to teach your kids how to call for help in a crisis or emergency, just in case such a situation should arise.

Even though these tips can be helpful, there’s no set formula for how to discuss mental health issues with your kids. Also keep in mind there’s never a “perfect” time to start the conversation. But if you’re supportive, loving and honest when you approach the topic with them, you’ll be off to a really great start.

To see more from Dr. Susman, visit his blog

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What I Want Every New NICU Mom to Know About the Journey

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Dear NICU Mama,

I wish there were words I could say to bring you comfort. But I know there’s nothing I can say to make you feel better or give you more confidence in your baby’s future. You see your baby so fragile behind that plexiglass, hooked up to wires and tubes and monitors. You have no idea what all this stuff connected to him is for. You hear those alarms going off every few seconds, and you can’t help but feel this overwhelming feeling of fear and worry. The heaviness in your chest you feel, that’s your heart breaking for your baby.

Take a deep breath. Take a few deep breaths. This is your new reality.

The sooner you accept this new reality, the sooner you’ll learn to appreciate the miracle unfolding before your eyes. You see, that baby of yours is a miracle. Your baby, right now, is fighting to live in a world they weren’t prepared for. Your baby is strong and amazing. Look at your baby. They need you to be strong. And you need to find the mama bear in you to fight. Fight for your baby. No matter how bad of a prognosis the doctors give you, fight for your baby.

I know it’s hard. I know you’re probably thinking, How am I supposed to fight when all I can do is cry? Honestly, all I can say is that some people have it in them, and some people don’t. This moment will define your experience. This is the beginning of your NICU journey.

You’re going to feel your heart break every step you take in and out of that NICU. But you will survive this. You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. Every day may be the hardest day of your life. And when that day is over, here comes another day you don’t think you’ll be able to get through. And then that day will end, and another will start. Every day is going to be hard. But you’ll get through it. You have to keep going. Your baby is fighting to survive; you should be, too.

Learn everything you can about your baby. Memorize what their skin feels like, what their little cheeks look like, how their nose is squished up with that CPAP or vent tube in their face. Memorize the wrinkles in their toes, how their hand looks wrapped around your fingers. This is what you’ll remember for the rest of your life. You’ll never forget the way the NICU feels. But you’ll also never forget the incredible love you feel for you little fighter. It is your choice to decide which one overwhelms you the most.

The NICU journey will turn your life upside down as a mother. We’re so used to being the ones who feed and change our babies. We’re the ones who get to hold them and touch them and make them feel better. But when your baby is in the NICU, you aren’t in charge. You won’t get those amazing baby firsts without someone saying it’s OK or someone else doing it for you. But don’t get mad about it. It’s not your fault or the nurse’s fault. That’s just part of the reality you are living. That’s the life of a baby in the NICU. What you need to do, mama, is make the best of what you got.

You have to live on purpose when you’re in the NICU. You have to purposely get up and go. You have to purposely enjoy your time. That takes time and a whole lot of effort on your part. And you might have a lot of prayers. I never felt closer to God than when I begged Him to heal my son, to comfort my baby and to hold my baby because I couldn’t; he was too fragile. But the vision I had in my mind of my baby in the palm of His hands — that’s what got me through the day. Plus we were blessed with some pretty amazing nurses.

Sometimes I want to go back to the NICU and thank those nurses with every ounce of thankfulness I have in me. But the NICU journey still gives me anxiety. It’s hard for me to go there sometimes. I put on a brave face and go there for special occasions and events, but that’s because I’ve become a pro at pushing my fears back and not allowing my tears to fall down my face. I can force myself to think of the positive instead of the negative. I learned that from having a baby in the NICU. And I believe you will, too. It is going to take time. And it is going to be painful and emotional. You will cry at times, and that’s OK. But you’ll learn to get through it. In a time like this, you have no choice. You have to keep going. You have to live.

Every day, your baby fights to live. You, their mother, their favorite person in the entire world, need to be strong. Because as time passes, your baby is going to need you more and more. And that baby will rely on you to take care of them and raise them.

Believe in your baby, and stay filled with hope. Believe and have faith that no matter what happens, you will get through this. You are not alone.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability and/or disease. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to community@themighty.com. Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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10 Things You Can Do for a Friend With a Child in the Hospital

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Being in the hospital can be scary, stressful, exhausting and generally awful. “What can I do?” is the single most common question I’m asked when I’m in the hospital with my daughter, Sarah. I’m deeply grateful for the helping hand, but I usually don’t have an answer in the moment because I can’t focus on the question. But now that I have time to think about it, here are 10 things you can do for your friend who is in the hospital with their child:

1. A good cup of coffee will be greatly appreciated.

Hospital coffee is often terrible and terribly expensive. A nice cup of coffee is an easy thrill.

2. Visit them at the hospital, even it’s a short stay.

Not everyone can, and certainly no one can every time, but consider coming for a quick visit. A hug goes a really long way. Limit your visit, though. Your friend is tired. They probably stayed up too late and woke up too early. It might feel like a waste to drive all that way for a short visit. It isn’t.

3. Bring food from outside the hospital.

Hospitals vary, of course. But even in a hospital with good food, food from the outside will be appreciated. Hospitals and even units within hospitals all have different policies about food so check their policy online first.

4. Offering a gas or grocery card could help your friend with money issues.

This is something no one is going to ask for when you ask what they need, but I promise it is almost certainly needed. Even with great insurance, hospitalizations rack up costs. Expenses like food, parking and gas won’t break the bank in a day. But days and weeks add up very quickly.

I can give a pretty accurate budget overview for each of the hospitals we frequent, and some are much harder on the bottom line than others. Even if we stay afloat during the hospitalization, it’s really hard to catch up when you begin to fall behind on your other bills. I don’t hear people talk about this a lot, but nearly every family I know with a kid who spends time in the hospital is behind on bills. This is why. We are on the same tight budgets that most people are on; the surprise expenses of an unplanned or extended hospitalization can throw the whole budget off for months. If money makes you uncomfortable, or if you think it will make your friend uncomfortable, you might consider gas cards or grocery cards.

5. Take the siblings out.

Spoil them. You will have my undying affection if you make my children happy during these times. Kids struggle a lot when their siblings are in the hospital. They get less of their parents when they need more. They’re worried. They’re scared. They might be feeling like they’re less important than their siblings. They even be might be mad. Give them a break from all the focus on their sick sibling.

a young girl sitting on a bed in a hospital room

6. Don’t forget to smile.

No one does. People think they should feel sad. The thing is, moods are contagious. Bring a little joy. Sing with them. Laugh with them. Don’t force a mood you don’t feel, but don’t leave all the smiles at the hospital door, either. We need them inside the room, too.

7. Tell your friend you’re going to pray and then do it.

When my friends ask for prayers, I pray right away. I will forget if I put it off. It doesn’t take long, and I can pray later, too. I believe God listens and knows what they need, so this doesn’t have to be complicated. Let your friend know you’re praying. Just knowing you’re thinking of them is helpful in and of itself. If you don’t pray, send good thoughts. That’s helpful, too.

8. Create a care package.

Care packages are a tried and true method of making someone feel loved. In a hospital care package, send a mix of things they might need and things that will make them happy. This doesn’t have to be a huge expensive thing. Here is a list of things you might consider including:

• Clothing: For your friend or their kid. They’re not home. Laundry might be an issue. The kid is probably in a hospital gown, but they will have to go home at some point, and the clothing they came in is probably dirty.

• A real toothbrush and/or razor: We always forget to bring them.

• Books or magazines: For either the patient or the parent.

• A toy for the patient.

• Tea

Mug

• Lotion, shampoo samples or lip gloss.

• Silk flowers or balloons: Real flowers are allowed on some units but not most.

• Music

• Chocolate

• Vitamins

• A coloring book: I suppose you could get one for their child, too.

• Essential oils: Think calming blends. I bring a roller bottle with frankincense and lavender in almond oil.

You know your friend. Are they silly? Bring a slinky. Are they serious? Bring a journal. When you’re planning a package, you might think of it as a sensory escape from the hospital. What would you want to look at or smell or hear or do?

9. Bring dinner for the other family members at home.

This simple gesture shouldn’t be underestimated.

10. Offer to sit with the patient.

One of the hardest things about being a parent is you feel guilty leaving, even for a minute. You can’t completely solve this problem for your friend, but you can offer to stay in the hospital room with their child while your friend takes a shower, goes on a walk or steps out for a meal.

Bonus #11: Keep asking what you can do. In the moment, your friend might not be able to answer. They’re tired. Their mind is occupied. When I am asked, if I answer at all, I am likely to say something inane like, “Bring me a fresh towel and a banana.” But you know, I heard what you meant to say. I heard, “I love you and I am here.” That is huge. That’s the biggest thing on the list.

Follow this journey on Joyful Catholic Mom.

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A Day in My Life as a Cardiac ICU Mother

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The day starts early, even though you’ve been up for a while now. You hoped to fall back into sleep, but your mind is too busy wondering. You grab the phone and hit the preprogrammed number for the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU). A quick hello to your baby’s night nurse, and then you hold your breath for a good update.

That update determines how the next few hours go. If your baby is having a difficult time, you rush through the morning routine and take the most reliable route for traffic. If you hear “good night overall,” you get ready and sneak in a few moments of normal with the other kids at home. You work on a distraction to avoid the cry of your 3-year-old who misses you so much and wonders where the baby in your tummy went. It’s a painful departure either way, whether rushed or slow. Half of your heart was left at the CICU the night before, and half of your heart is about to be left here at home as you see the smiles of bravery streaked with tears from the children you’re leaving behind.

A few tears of your own are shed as you head off. It feels so strange to sit in line with the cars around you as they head off to work, drop off kids at school and get ready for their day. You get angry at cars that cut you off and think, What is your hurry? Don’t you know where I’m headed! How can you cut me off when I’m headed in to see my sick baby? The ride is long, but it gives you time to disconnect from home and prepare for the 12-plus hours ahead in the hospital.

As you arrive and near the room, you wonder what you’ll find. It’s too early for rounds, so a room filled with a medical team now is not a good sign. You learned that the hard way after your first night home ended with a middle-of-the-night trip back up because your baby had stopped breathing. The image of a busy room and your husband standing outside, hoping all will be OK, is still burned fresh in your mind. So again, you round the door and hope for a room with just a nurse there. Sometimes it’s a familiar face, sometimes a new face. No matter who it is, you’re grateful for the care they give her.

Each day is different because each day has new challenges. But each day you cry a little and hope a lot. You’ve come to know some of the faces you see in the rooms you pass, or in those who pass your room. You overhear parents in the family room or cafe talk in similar terminology as you. You know the struggles they have.

When you walk to the water fountain for a drink, you see a mother crying heavily, overhear “only did chest compressions for 20 minutes” and you see the distraught family members waiting outside the doors to come in and comfort one another. You know that could be you in an instant. You hold your breath and say a prayer for them.

A walk in the other direction and you see a baby who has a dark room, and you have never, not once, seen anyone but a nurse in their room. Your heart aches for the family because you know they’re in such a difficult spot. Do they live hundreds of miles away and can’t be here because they have no help with their family? Do they work and can spare no time away because they can’t risk losing their insurance? Instant gratitude for the opportunity to be here with your baby. Prayers for those away from theirs.

Time does not pass the same in the CICU. Sometimes 10 minutes can see like three days. Sometimes three days goes by so quickly that you can’t distinguish one day from another. There are always people in and out of your room. Out of necessity, you have to figure out how to come to terms with seeing your baby in pain. Seeing your baby with her chest open, too swollen to be closed due to receiving open-heart surgery at only 4 days old. You have to remind yourself that if she had not had all this, you would no longer have her.

You do what you can to comfort your baby. The motherly urges to hold, cuddle and feed her, those are still there even though you see it’s physically impossible to do. You do what you can to soothe your baby and feed these urges. You cradle her tiny head, hold her hands and feet, and give her drops of breast milk you’ve been so busy pumping and storing in the hopes she’ll pull through this and will start eating someday soon. It’s hard to think too far into the future. Your baby was born with heart failure. Their future is a big question right now. You are just happy for today.

As the sun lowers in the sky and hints to the approach of evening, you realize you haven’t been aware of another day passing. Was it nice outside? When did the trees turn a deep red and orange color? Did the day go well for the kids at home? Then you realize there’s just a few more hours until you’ll say goodnight to your baby. With a little anxiety, you go over to rub her head — not to comfort her, but to comfort yourself. You wonder if tomorrow you will be blessed with another day with her.

Night rounds are quicker than morning. You thank your team causally, but you really do mean it. They’re keeping your baby alive. It starts to get dark, and you notice you’re hungry. Did you eat today? You start to ache from standing next to the crib and sitting on the uncomfortable chair. Your hands hurt from the constant sanitizing you do. You wish you could take on a thousand more discomforts if it meant your baby would feel better. You pray for her pain.

You stay until you have meet the night nurse and you are ready to leave, but truthfully, you are never ready to leave. You reluctantly say goodbye and point to your number on the board. “Please call us if there are any changes, and we will call to check in.” You kiss your baby’s head, bless her, say your family’s goodnight prayers with her and then kiss her again. You know if you don’t turn around and walk out the door right now, you never will. So you turn quickly and give a quick look back. “Be good, baby girl! See you in the morning.”

Sigh as you walk to the car. The skyway is not that crowded now. As you step in the car, you look out at the hospital and the buildings. Half of your heart is there. Going home to the other half now. Again, the ride gives you space to disconnect before walking back into your house. When you walk in, loud cheers of “You’re home.” You cuddle those little ones extra tight and thank God for them. You try to sort through mail, help with homework and hope you can squeeze in as much as you can before finally resigning to bed. A quick call to the night nurse to settle your mind in hopes you can to sleep. Say some prayers, fall in and out of sleep, and anxiously await for the morning to come when you can do it all over again.

Follow this journey on Caringbridge.

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6 Things I'd Tell the Parent Who Just Heard 'Global Developmental Delay'

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I always get a bit tongue-tied when someone asks what’s wrong with my 4-year-old son, Gabe.

You see, we don’t know what’s “wrong” with him. He’s undiagnosed with a lot of common medical issues.

My usual answer is that he has global developmental delay (GDD). This is the only clinical description available to us that sums up the bulk of his ongoing medical issues. But to the man on the street, it doesn’t describe much of anything at all.

Global developmental delay can even sound like a friendly term. It describes a delay in development, but it doesn’t scream a life-long problem. In fact, it whispers hope because a delay by definition offers a promise of catching up. Right?

Not quite.

Here are six things I’ve learned after our experience with GDD:

1. Will my child with global developmental delay catch up?

This is probably the first thing everyone Googles when a doctor mentions GDD. There are some children who can catch up with the help from a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or a speech and language therapist. With good programs and lots of blood, sweat and tears, progress can be made. You will probably have a love/hate relationship with therapy, and it can take a while to find the right one.

Some children, however, won’t catch up. They might make significant strides with therapy to achieve their full potential, but there is no happy ever after and skipping off into the mainstream sunset. After nearly five years, we have accepted our child falls into this camp.

2. Brace yourself for tests.

Testing can be a bit tough. You might have an initial development assessment with a lot of different therapists over a period of weeks. This will rule autism or a language disorder in or out. After this, doctors are going to want to start running some tests. The conditions may scare you to death. I barely survived this part myself, but I did survive, as did a lot of my friends. And more importantly, our children are thriving still. Expect tests for hearing and vision, thyroid function, screening for inborn errors of metabolism, EEGs for epilepsy, MRI brain scans and genetic screening. A useful flow chart is available here.

3. Reach out to your friends and family.

The testing period can be an emotional roller coaster, and you’ll need as many people as possible to weigh that cart down so it doesn’t fly off the rails. Plus, when the dust settles, you’ll want your friends and family back for support. They’re not always going to get it right, but I bet you they will try their best. And sometimes (gasp!), they will have their own stuff to deal with.

4. Birthdays can be tough.

Remember all of those things you looked forward to when you were pregnant. Birthdays were right up there with Christmas. The cake, the party, the presents. You wanted to make it so amazing that your child will remember it forever. But then things didn’t exactly according to plan with GDD in your life. When your child has a delay, the birthday can serve to remind you that the gap between them and their peer group just got larger. It’s a bittersweet moment. I was a mess for Gabe’s first two birthdays; it just felt so sad and unfair.

They have gotten easier, though, and when he turns 5 in two weeks, we will quietly celebrate this milestone and how far he has come. But I won’t lie, when he opens yet another baby toy instead of a bike, a kite or a scooter, a bit of my soul will curl up and die. At the risk of sounding like a party pooper, I am always a bit glad when his birthday is out of the way for another year.

Gabe.school2

5. Recognize happiness can be as fragile as a house of cards

You can be the most positive person in the world. An eternal optimist. Good for you. But if your child has GDD, no matter the severity, know that at some point something will knock you down and that’s OK. This is a fragile sort of life and most of us are just feeling our way in the dark.

6. Meet your children where they’re at, and everything will be OK. 

Life will settle back down if you let it. Day-to-day, GDD isn’t all bad. In fact, you will largely forget it’s part of your life. Yes, you will linger long (and longer) again in each stage.

At 4 years old, Gabe is more like a 12-month-old. I love that he gets excited by ducks in the park and sometimes falls asleep in the nook of my arm on a windy Sunday. I obviously don’t love the night-time awakenings as much. But if you take the pressure off them and yourself, watching them unfold at their own pace can be a magical thing.

I have to say, hand on heart, that some of my favorite moments in my life have come from the simple gifts Gabe has given me. A surge of pride and sense of well-being swept over me when I watched him cross the finish line in his walking frame with no assistance from his teachers at his school summer sport’s day. And because of him, I’ve learned to take life one day at a time and not look too far ahead. A slower pace of life is good for the soul.

As the saying goes: Everybody wants happiness, nobody wants pain, but you can’t have a rainbow without a little rain.*

*There’s another thing you don’t know. You will now collect cheesy inspirational sayings where you once collected shoes or football stickers. It happens to us all no matter how cool and trendy we used (to pretend) to be.

Alison Bloomer.1-001

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To the Mom Who Just Found Out Her Baby Has Half a Heart

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It’s been almost two years since we found out about my daughter’s “half a heart,” and I’ve been thinking to myself, If I could go back to her diagnosis day and tell myself anything, knowing what I know now, what I would say?

And this is it…

ultrasound

Wipe your tears, take a deep breath and clear your mind. Look at that ultrasound screen in front of you, steer your eyes away from her heart. Look at her! Her little face, her tiny body wiggling around inside of you. What do you feel is the right thing to do? Trust that, hold on to that and know no matter what lies ahead, you’re making the right choice for you, your baby and your circumstances.

You’re going to hear lots of stories, both good and sad. You’ll be given percentage rates that make you worry if it’s unfair to bring a baby with so slim a chance of survival into this world. Stop; you’ve made your decision, the future is not in your hands.

Take each day as it comes, don’t worry too far ahead, concentrate on now. Today is a blessing. This is something you will be forced to quickly learn to do when you spend so much time in intensive care.

Fay Murrish's daughter

Stop researching so much that you make your head spin. Stop trying to plan every single situation out. I know you want to be prepared, but honestly there’s no way to ever be prepared for the hard times you’re going to face. This is the honest truth.

You’re going to find out a lot of people’s real personalities, from one extreme to the other — some so insensitive and ignorant but others amazing, kind and unbelievably supportive. You will lose contact with people as they avoid you during hard times; they don’t know what to say. But be forever grateful to your true friends and family. You’ll make lifelong friends in your “heart family,” who will understand what you’re going through more than most.

Your other children will be OK! Yes, changes will happen; they will only have one parent at home while the other is at hospital, and they will not understand why for a while. They will find it hard to understand why their new sister is attached to machines with wires everywhere. Yes, it will take time for them to adjust, but they will. And they will be OK; they will even surprise you with how well they cope.

You will know every surgeon, doctor and nurse on a first name basis. You will learn every medicine, all about IV pumps, tube-feeding, x-rays, echos, what works for your baby and what doesn’t. You will end up feeling like a nurse yourself.

Fay Murrish and her daughter

It’s OK to cry; you’re human. It’s OK to feel mad and that things are unfair; it isn’t fair that a child is dealt with a life-threatening illness. It’s OK to worry; you love and care for your children dearly, it’s natural. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You will do your best, and that is all you can do.

You will hand your child over for surgery after surgery, and there will be days you pray please no more backward steps. You will see things like her chest left open for days, her heart beating in front of your face.

But one day all this will be worth it.

You will get her well enough to come home. The days, weeks, months or years at home between different surgeries will be the best times ever.

Fay Murrish's family

She will grow, and she will show you what it is to be strong. She will laugh, and she will play. With every milestone will come even more amazement. She will be happy!

Most of all know your life is going to change beyond your imagination, and it’s going to be the best thing you have ever done.

Half a heart, not half a life.

Fay Murrish's daughter

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