A few weeks ago, a distant relative of mine contacted me to let me know she had ordered a copy of my recent book, A Day in the Life. Her friend’s son was recently diagnosed with a mental illness, so she was reading books and articles about mental illness in order to better understand and encourage her very discouraged friend. I was deeply touched to know my cousin cared enough about her friend to make such an effort to educate and enlighten herself.
When I was interviewing families for my book, the final question I asked was, “If you had a wish list of how others could help you, what would be on it?” As I reflected on their answers, it was painfully obvious that the stigma of mental illness continues. Families are yearning for change. Parents long to break down the walls of isolation that seem to surround them; they deeply wish their children would be seen and appreciated for who they are. Parents want to be understood and believed by teachers, extended family member and health care professionals. They are profoundly weary of the misconceptions and the myths.
So, if you are an extended family member, a teacher, a pastor, a mental health professional, a politician, a police officer, a co-worker or perhaps just simply a friend to parents who have a son or daughter with a mental health disorder, here is our wish list. This is how you can help.
Our Wish List:
- Respite care. Without question, this was the number-one answer given. Parent after parent told of how difficult it is to get away, especially as a couple. Comments were made such as, “We need time together, even if it’s just for a few hours. So often we have to tag team in order for one of us to stay with our child.” And, “It would be so nice to have a place for my daughter to spend the weekend. My husband and I are never able to get away.” Another mom wistfully said, “I wish I had someone who could hang out with my son for a couple of hours so I could go grocery shopping without him.”
- Practical help. One dad, who frequently travels for his job, said, “I know it would be such an encouragement for my wife if, from time to time, someone would offer to help lighten her load. She’s often depleted by the demands of our son and would appreciate an occasional meal brought in, or even someone to run to the store for her.” A single mom shared, “There are times I wish someone would offer to give my other kids rides to their school or church activities, since I can’t leave my daughter alone. That would be so helpful.”
- Befriend us. Many parents who have children with severe mental health issues shared their feelings of isolation and loneliness. “I often feel alone. I would love for someone to reach out and ask me to go for coffee or lunch. I don’t need anything huge—just something to show they care.” One dad said, “I wish people would ask how we are or how they could help us this week. Sometimes it feels like we’re swimming upstream all alone.” An older mom said, “I wish I had talked to others about the issues and challenges we were struggling with in our home when our son was younger. We lived in isolation—we didn’t reach out to others, and no one reached out to us.”
- Befriend our child. Many parents expressed their desire for others to reach out to their struggling child. “Our son is lonely and invisible. It would be nice for someone to befriend him. His social life, along with everything else, seems to fall on us. We dearly love our son and he loves us, but he needs and wants other people in his life to show him he’s worth their time.”
- Allow us to say “no.” A few parents mentioned they feel a subtle pressure from their churches to be more involved in the ministries of the church or other Christian organizations. Yet these parents recognize that, for them and their families, they need to keep outside obligations to a minimum. One dad said, “My main ‘ministry,’ for now, is in my home. From time to time I’m asked to serve on the church council, teach a class or serve in a parachurch organization, but at this time in the life of our family I have to say ‘no’ to anything that would take me out of the home in the evenings. I’m not sure others always understand that.” Along these lines, another mom shared, “I wish others in our church could understand why we seldom volunteer at church in any capacity and why we never volunteer in the weeknight ministry. Sometimes sending our kids to church on Wednesday evenings is the only break we get all week. We know it’s a safe place for our kids to go and that they’ll be with people we trust. Some people may think we’re not doing our part at church, but we really need that break.”
- Believe us! This point is especially geared for grandparents, aunt and uncles, older siblings and friends of those who “do life” with parents who have children with mental health disorders. “Please listen to us when it comes to our child’s care—especially if our child is still quite young. We live each day on the frontlines, and we really do know our child better than anyone else. We know when they need to be removed from situations (i.e., at family gatherings), what foods or drinks must NOT be given to them (we usually have a very good reason!), why their schedules must be maintained as best as possible, why certain behaviors are overlooked and other ones absolutely never allowed and so much more. To you it may seem like we’re hyper-vigilant or too uptight or much too strict or just plain weird, but we’ve been in this game a while, and we really do know what works best for our child!”
- Fix the mental health care system. Parent after parent shared their frustrations of dealing with a broken and inadequate mental health care system. One mom lamented, “The mental health care system is awful—especially for kids. Many of the residential places we needed to bring our child were very scary, yet we had no other options. Some places were much more trustworthy, but we weren’t always able to access those. Something needs to be done.” Another mother with an adult son told me, “The system is simply not working. Psychiatric hospital beds are typically full, so the emergency room has no choice but to hold our son for hours and hours, then send him back home. We need more places for people in crisis to go.”
- Better education. One parent asserted, “People need to be better educated on what mental illness is and what it looks like. At the top of the list would be police officers. They are frequently the first ones we call in an emergency. It’s helpful and reassuring if they have a good understanding of mental illness and how to respond toward those in crisis.” Another parent very specifically stated, “We need to do a better job of educating the public about suicide and what to watch for. We need to better inform and educate parents, teens, college students, teachers, clergy, church staff, professionals, etc., about suicide risk factors, signs of suicidal thinking and so forth. We need to break the silence.”
“I am going to put a special blessing on you … so that you will become a blessing and example to others” (Gen. 12:2, VOICE).
Who can YOU bless today?
photo credit: glenn-carsten-peters-190592-unsplash.jpg