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The Troubled Child: Coping with Mental Illness

The suicide of famed pastor Rick Warren’s son sent waves of unease through our homes, creating new awareness for children and mental illness. In a letter to his church, Warren wrote that his son Matthew, 27, committed suicide in a “momentary wave of despair” after a lifelong struggle with depression and mental illness. An autopsy revealed that Warren’s son died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Mental illness is real. It shows up in the form of anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder and a host of other diagnoses.

Unfortunately, society often shames and disregards those struggling with mental illness. It’s easier for parents and teachers to deny a child is suffering than to confront it and seek support. But mental illness shouldn’t go unnoticed.

If you suspect your child is suffering from mental illness, seek help. It’s no different than asking for help with diabetes, cancer or some other illness.

Here are a few tips on what to do:

Seek professional help and begin educating yourself. Start with your child’s pediatrician and ask questions about behavior that seems unusual. Learn all you can - you don’t have to have a medical background to begin to understand mental illness. You know your child better than anyone and can offer valuable insight with medical professionals.

Let go of your guilt. It’s not your fault. Parents of children with mental illness are quick to blame themselves and hide in shame, but there’s no reason to take responsibility for a biologically-based mental illness. Don’t feel guilty that your child behaves differently than your neighbor’s child. Good parenting doesn’t solve mental illness.

Break the silence. Talk with school officials and others such as church pastors and authorities to improve the situation for your child. Find a support group of parents coping with mental illness. Make an intentional choice to not hide in shame.

Don’t let it destroy your family. Support one another. Unite together as a team, educating other children in the family of the illness while being sensitive to your child’s feelings about the diagnosis. Stay calm in the face of danger or unusual behavior.

Let your child know you love them and will always be there for them. Children with mental illness need more reassurance than other children. Let them know your home is a safe place and encourage them to ask questions and express their feelings. Don’t allow siblings to demoralize or make fun of their behavior.

Keep an open mind about solutions. Don’t dismiss an alternative without exploring it. Seek others’ opinions on available options. Stay abreast of ongoing research to determine the latest methods of treatment.

A mental illness diagnosis doesn’t mean your child will never lead a normal life. I was devastated when my oldest daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at five years old. I struggled to understand her during her early years and failed to parent her appropriately at times during her adolescent years - but she emerged from her teenage years successfully, with a determined spirit and resolve to help others on a similar path. She graduates from college this year with an Early Childhood Education degree, excited about her next chapter in life as an elementary school teacher.

The impact of mental illness in children cannot be denied; but with the proper tools and education, more children can get the help they need to overcome its devastating effects and lead productive lives.

Mental health organizations:

Canadian Mental Health Association -
Mental Health Canada -
Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health -
Alberta Health Services -

Gayla is a freelance writer, wife, mom and stepmom to five children. She holds a Master’s degree in Psychology and Counseling.

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