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The Hardest (and Best) Decision I Made for My Daughter’s Mental Health

Editor’s note: This story was published with permission from and in collaboration with the author’s daughter.

When our then 12-year-old daughter Lauren started experiencing mental health symptoms in 2017, at first we thought it was asthma. We took her to a pulmonologist who gave her an inhaler, but her condition didn’t seem to improve. We then realized what we thought were symptoms of an asthma attack were actually panic attacks, and took her to a therapist for anxiety instead. While her condition seemed to improve at least for a little while, we didn’t realize our daughter was still struggling in silence with another insidious mental health condition: depression. 

The depression snuck up on us because of its secrecy. While panic attacks were harder for Lauren to hide, behind closed doors she was cutting and turning to substances as a way to numb herself from the pain.

As a parent, it’s difficult to look back and see all of the signs that we missed. The withdrawal, the confusion, the absences from school. The missing wine from the refrigerator. The lack of interest in taking care of herself, the neglect for her own personal hygiene, and the decreased interest in things she once enjoyed. We assumed she was just tired, or just stressed out at school. We wanted to believe these were “normal” parts of being a teen, and didn’t recognize them as signs of depression. Even with therapy, even with a psychiatrist, and even with parents who were willing to support her anyway we could, her mental health continued to spiral downward.

It all came to a head the summer of 2021 when we found her nearly unconscious in the basement after drinking and smoking. That’s when it all came out: the cutting, the substance abuse, and just how bad her depression had gotten. We couldn’t be in denial anymore about just how much our daughter was struggling. 

It was after this her therapist initially recommended residential treatment, but I was hesitant. Although I knew she needed the extra support, it felt extreme to send her away from home, and I wasn’t familiar with what residential treatment could offer. 

So we tried other things: she went to a local intensive outpatient program for anxiety and depression. That seemed to help at first, but then she was hospitalized for suicidal ideation after getting triggered by an incident with friends. 

We wanted to make sure we were addressing her substance abuse, so we sent her to another outpatient treatment program. Again, some aspects of her mental health seemed to improve, but the anxiety and depression just kept getting worse and worse. Residential treatment was recommended a second time, I still just wasn’t sure. 

I’ll never forget the night my daughter finally said to me: “How much worse do I need to get in order for you guys to let me go?” This really struck something in me, and we decided it was time to seriously look into residential programs.

Based on her therapist’s recommendation, we landed on Newport Academy, a mental health treatment program specifically for teens and young adults. She ended up going there twice – the first time for about 21 days, and then again for a little over five and a half weeks. 

What stood out initially was the level of structure and breadth of activities offered at the treatment center. I was given a schedule so I could see what she was up to each day. In the mornings she would attend school to keep up with her education, and then the rest of her days were filled with a combination of individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and activities like yoga, mixed martial arts, and equestrian therapy. There were opportunities to cook and bake with her housemates, which she loved. There was adventure therapy, where she would go on exciting outings once a week. Lauren has since told me the productive distractions and sense of community helped her immensely, and she also didn’t hate that she got to be in California during the cold Ohio winter.

For me, the family therapy sessions were so important. Although we regularly communicated with Lauren during her time at Newport, having a professional in the room to facilitate certain tough conversations really helped us get to the root of some issues, trust being a big one. In these sessions, Lauren was able to tell us things she might not have been comfortable sharing otherwise, and it helped us more deeply understand what she had been going through. Slowly, we were able to build back some of the trust that had been lost. 

Sending Lauren to residential treatment was one of the best decisions we made as a family, but it certainly wasn’t an easy one. It can be so hard to let go, and so hard to trust (in our case) people 2,500 miles away to “take your place” and care for your child. Throughout this experience though, I realized three very important things. 

First – that while there were plenty of good treatment options in my area, it was OK that Lauren ultimately needed a higher level of care. This was such a tough pill to swallow because it meant accepting how bad things had really gotten and just how much she was struggling. I now understand why getting her away from her “normal” life for a while – with all its stressors, temptations and triggers – was actually what she needed. She was then able to re-enter the “real world” with more tools, more confidence, and more sustainable, long-lasting positive change than she experienced in any of her outpatient programs. 

Secondly, I realized nobody on the Newport team was trying to take my place. In fact, they were actually standing right next to me. We were all on Team Lauren, working together for the same goal. By sending her to residential treatment, I wasn’t “letting her go,” but instead adding more people to our support network.

Lastly, Lauren and I both had to learn there are no quick fixes when it comes to your mental health. You can’t just put a Band-Aid on it and wait for it to get better. When it comes to living with anxiety and depression, it’s an ongoing process with wins and losses, and plenty of steps forward and steps back. Our family has learned to trust the process, have an open mind, and now understand that just because there are setbacks doesn’t mean you’re not moving in the right direction. 

Today, Lauren is 17. She’s interested in studying psychology because she wants to help people like her. She loves to travel, and after college, she dreams about going into the Peace Corps. She loves reading (mainly fiction), and has found that exercising (a habit she picked up at Newport) really helps her stay on track when it comes to her mental health. Of course things aren’t perfect, and Lauren continues to see a therapist and get support for her anxiety and depression. But the big difference is, when those challenges come up, we have the tools and trust to face them together.

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