Unlike other illnesses, mental illness has a stigma attached to it, and we as a society are just not that equipped to help those suffering in our midst. Despite the rising cases of depression, anxiety, suicide, and general mental health awareness, we still don’t know how to support those living with mental health conditions. To make matters worse, the stigma associated with mental health issues makes it hard for these people to come out in the open and discuss the challenges they face.
Those of us who have family members struggling with mental health problems know firsthand how stressful it can be. You want to fix them and help them get better, but then you realize that there’s no quick-fix solution and that a long road to recovery lies ahead.
I’ve been through all this and more with my son.
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My family’s struggle with mental illness started when we adopted my eldest son. When we first brought him home, my wife and I noticed that something was off. He was unresponsive towards us and held back from any show of affection. He also became increasingly detached, withdrawn, and had difficulties connecting his actions to consequences.
We initially thought he was having trouble adjusting to his new home. However, after visiting a barrage of child psychiatrists, therapists and child behavior specialists, we finally had a diagnosis. Our baby boy had Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), a condition where a child, often due to neglect early in his life, doesn’t establish any healthy attachment with caregivers. Now that we had an idea of what we were up against, my wife and I had to change our parenting tactics. Raising a child with RAD was challenging, intense, and exhausting but we made progress over the years.
Unfortunately, we suffered another setback when my son was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety at the age of 16. It was painful watching him withdraw once again just as we’d gotten used to his lively personality.
Being Open About Depression and Mental Health
While this new challenge was hard to face, my wife and I agreed that we would be completely open about it. We wanted to fight for my son as a family, and we decided not to hide anything from our other children. I believe that having a supportive family and an environment where he could openly discuss his challenges and struggles really helped my son get better.
Of course, the journey has been difficult, but there are some steps we took that made things easier:
- Accepting my son for who he is. I have to admit that I struggled with this one. I blamed myself and felt that my poor parenting contributed to my son’s problems. It wasn’t until I put the focus back on my son that things improved. I had to accept him as he was, and I realized that his mental illness didn’t define him.
- Being a supportive parent. It’s hard being understanding and supportive when all your son wants to do is sleep and avoid human interaction. It’s even harder to listen to him vent and talk about all the dark thoughts he had inside. But being a parent meant that I supported and listened to my son, even when I didn’t understand all he was going through.
- Having regular family meetings where everyone was free to air their feelings. It took a while for everyone to be comfortable with this but eventually, my family learned to open up. My son admitted that seeing we weren’t infallible was one of the reasons why he stopped being so hard on himself.
- Having family dates and outings. I cut back on my work schedule and started organizing family dates and outings where I just hang out with my kids, talking about life and spending time with them. This helped us bond and grow closer.
- Attending therapy. Mental illness is something that affects the whole family, so we go for family therapy twice a month in addition to our son’s weekly individual therapy sessions.
Mental health illness isn’t a taboo topic in my family. We discuss it openly, ask tough questions, seek answers together, and express our fears. Through this, we’ve helped my son come to terms with his condition, and we’ve all grown closer as a family.
Tyler Jacobson lives in Utah with his wife and four children. He has experience working with youth and helping troubled teens. Tyler finds deep fulfillment in sharing his fatherly experiences & parenting lessons with the world through his writing.