To the Parent of a Child Just Diagnosed With a Mental Illness


Dear parent of a child who was just diagnosed with a mental illness,

I know how you’re feeling. I remember when I first got my son’s official diagnosis —attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and mood disorder not otherwise specified. There were other words. I remember it was said my son would not be able to attend kindergarten without medication. I was sad, scared and worried. I am sure you are feeling all of these emotions and others.

Your expectations for your child may change, but this is not the end of the world. No matter what diagnosis your child was given, nothing about your child has changed. You still have the same child who you love, laugh with and cry with. Your child will still make you smile and still piss you off a lot.

Hearing or reading the words — whatever they are — depression, bipolar disorder,
ADHD, etc. is hard, but they are just words. Do not worry so much about the exact diagnosis. It can change. It probably will change. Bryce’s has changed several times. It will probably change again. Unfortunately, diagnosing mental illnesses is not an exact science.

Having been through this, I can offer some advice. Hopefully you find something here that’s helpful.

1. Find professionals you like. If you are not comfortable with the psychiatrist, social worker or therapist you are using, change. You have every right to do that. Ask for recommendations from people you know and trust. Each time you change, you tell your story again so it can be tiring, but if it is to find a good fit, it is worth it.

2. Ask for help at your child’s school. Ask the school for an evaluation so your child can get accommodations. Even if you do not think your child needs help academically, there may come a time where they need breaks, social skills support or other accommodations. They deserve this. They may also qualify for occupational therapy, speech therapy, etc. There are so many resources out there you may not be aware of. If you can afford it, hire an Educational Consultant. You will get more services quicker because the school systems will know you mean business.

3. Understand the diagnosis, but do not worry so much about it. Make sure the professionals working with you are treating the behaviors and symptoms — the impulses, the depression, the hyperactivity, psychosis, anger, etc. The diagnosis may matter, however, for certain services and resources.

4. Research all you can. Find out what programs are offered in your area for support, therapy, social skills, etc. For example, are there any organizations that offer after-school activities for children with special needs?

5. Join a support group. If you want to talk to other parents going through the same thing, look for a support group in your area. Most National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapters offer one. NAMI also offers classes that teach the basics of supporting a family member with a mental illness. If you join an online support group, do not listen to everyone on the internet. Everyone’s situation is different and some people only want to complain. Find what helps you, take breaks when it seems tough and find the support that is helpful to you.

Take care of yourself. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Self-care is crucial in order to be a good parent.

Try not to worry and think too much about the future. This is incredibly hard to do, but you have to try and take things day by day. Sometimes even hour by hour. Things will change. A few years ago, I was told to prepare for the fact that my son would most likely have to live in a Residential Treatment Center. He was that unstable. He had five hospitalizations, including one that lasted for 45 days. I was not wanting to accept that. I worked hard to get him into a Therapeutic Day School. We changed his medications. We changed his behavior plan. We worked on his self-esteem. It took time, but we worked hard to make things better.

My son is now mostly stable, has been stable for a few years and is doing well. There are bumps in the road, but that is OK. Right now my son has a friend from school over and they are going to the Trampoline Place tonight, together. Typical teenage Friday night behavior.

So, what do I tell you as a parent? There is hope. There will be ups and downs.

Just do your best, whatever that best is on any given day. That is what I was told, and that is what I pass on to you.

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