Why Parents of Mentally Ill Teens Don’t Want to Talk About It

Having a teen with significant mental illness is, in a word, exhausting.

Used with permission. https://www.flickr.com/photos/alachuacounty/12178605035

Used with permission. alachuacounty on flikr

For most, the stigma of mental illness will keep them from talking about it. They don’t want to stigmatize their child, or have everyone look down on them as parents for doing something to cause their child to be the way they are. They don’t want to hear about what failures they are as parents, because their friends like to talk casually among friends about how kids’ problems would be so easily solved if the parents would just parent right. The books they’ve read make it sound like a recipe, and their souffle keeps deflating and they’re not sure why or what to do about it. So they hide it, they smile and act like everything is good and they’re a nice, normal family.

They don’t want to talk about it because they want their child to have as normal a life as possible. They don’t want everyone to look at their child as a diagnosis, but as a human being. They still see flashes of normalcy, stretches of better days, and there’s always hope of things being better enough to move past this. And so they don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want you to look at their child as a problem to be solved.

They don’t want to talk about it because they get real tired, real fast of dealing with people condemning them for using medication, and real tired of the fight about how mental illness is a sudden, “snowflake,” Millennial thing when it’s not. Whatever the case may be, it ain’t that and parents of mentally ill kids really invite you to walk a mile in their shoes and then play a game of “Gain some perspective and sit down and hush.” (which is the kind, Christian version of the game of “Hide and go *&%$ yourself”)

They don’t want to talk about it because it’s not going away. It’s treatable hopefully, but in many cases not really curable. It’s like Type 1 diabetes in many ways; sure, some lifestyle stuff is helpful and ensures best outcomes, but this is a fight you’ll fight forever. And that fight gets exhausting.

They don’t want to talk about it because after the 4th trip to the hospital it sounds to them like whining, like they’re fishing for sympathy and trying to virtue-signal how good they are and how hard they have it. In reality they’re lost and wondering how to move forward.

They don’t want to talk about it if they’re Christians because the Church has often equated mental illness with demonic possession. Because they’ve been told if they just pray enough that it’ll go away, that if they only have faith that their child will be made well. They’ve been told that if they pursue secular counseling that they’re abandoning Jesus, and lack faith and a true understanding of Scripture. And that leaves them feeling miles from God and miles from others in their faith communities.

They don’t want to talk about it because every time they do, everyone has advice like they know how to solve the problem and like the parents haven’t tried all that already.

They don’t want to talk about it because they’re exhausted, and they’ve explained the whole story to every mental health professional in the system again and again. And every time they try something new, the story starts again from the beginning. And every time, it dredges up the entire weight of the hurt and the struggle and the pain as well as everything above. And telling it to the next person who asks sends them back through the whole emotional gamut again, and that’s exhausting.

They don’t want to talk about it because their life revolves around it but their other kids need to be treated like normal, healthy kids too. And around all the doctor’s appointments and therapy and hospital trips and being shouted at, there are basketball games and choir recitals and parent teacher conferences to go to for the other kids too. Their boss still expects results at work, their ministries still need volunteers and their lives still go on. And they ain’t got time to sit and let the whole thing hit them at once or they’ll quit. And the one thing they can’t do is quit.

They don’t want to talk about it because the anxiety of living every day wondering if today is the day that you’ll find your child has taken their own life in some terrible manner is crushing at times. And if they talk about it, they’re mentioning Voldemort and bringing the event upon themselves. And they’ve already had to talk to the other kids about it and wiped the tears and held them close as they cried for something everyone hopes never happens.

Now, me? Whatever. You want a dose of what it’s like to live as a parent of a mentally ill teen, grab a seat on the bench next to me and let’s talk a spell. You got a teen or adult child who is mentally ill? We’re on the same journey, you and me, and I have no answers for you but much love and much empathy.