Supporting a teenager with mental illness – a parent’s advice

If you’re a parent reading this in 2020 or beyond, you will be acutely aware that your child’s mental health is just as fragile as your own. Mental wellbeing is part of the national curriculum, it’s talked about readily in the media, and we probably all know someone whose child is struggling right now.

When mental illness came knocking on our door six years ago, I can honestly say that I was pretty clueless and very naïve…

Our Story

At 14 years of age, my daughter was a vibrant, busy, motivated and driven child. She volunteered for every new opportunity going at school and church; in fact she had so many hobbies I couldn’t keep up! Teachers loved her and she was someone everyone could rely on; surely she was thriving?

Slowly over the following year, things began to unravel – controlled eating habits, exhaustive lists of exercise regimes and revision timetables (that rarely got started) on her bedroom wall, emails from school saying that homework wasn’t being completed.

The constant busyness that everyone so admired? It turns out that was an attempt to drown out the negative thoughts, whilst avoiding any down time that was becoming increasingly difficult for her to manage.

The day that I found empty laxative packets at the bottom of her school bag, I knew that it wasn’t just typical teenage behaviour. Discovering later on that she had been secretly cutting as a way to alleviate the mental distress, confirmed it.

Sadly, my daughter’s mental health struggles had been rumbling below the surface for years. By the time she got any help from the NHS, she had already made several attempts on her life.

If at all possible, I want to help others avoid this heart-breaking situation by encouraging them to look out for the warning signs and provide some tips on what to do (or not do) next.

What Should a Worried Parent Do?

  1. Contact your child’s school. This is what I did initially. But back in 2015, a mere five years ago, there was much less awareness around adolescent mental health needs. These days, schools seem more understanding, have greater knowledge and most have counsellors on hand that pupils can be referred to. It’s important that teachers are made aware that your child is struggling as they have the potential to help or hinder.
  1. Seek out therapy. I cannot stress enough how vital therapy can be for a young person (or any of us for that matter), however small you think the problem is. Therapy, if done well, can be an absolute game changer. Don’t be afraid to shop around and let your child choose the person who they sense a rapport with. If they are going against their will, it’s highly likely that they will not engage so try to explain how it works and gently cajole them to at least try a taster session. There are some free youth therapy centres, so it’s worth looking around if you’re unable to pay for sessions.
  1. Talk to your GP. Some GP practices will offer medication to children under the age of 18 but generally this needs to be done via CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services). My daughter didn’t feel comfortable talking to our usual GP so we moved her to an understanding female doctor who really has been so helpful over the years. Don’t be scared to ask to switch GPs, or even practices if you feel that you aren’t being heard.
  1. Fight for your child. The waiting list at CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) is long and you will need to fight to be heard. If you are becoming increasingly concerned and can afford it, seek out an independent psychiatric assessment, something that I wish we had done a lot sooner.
  1. Trust your instincts. We were told on a few occasions that our daughter’s behaviour was that of ‘a typical teenager’. My instinct told me that it wasn’t. Self-harm, in whatever form, will never be a healthy way to process emotions. You know your child best, so go with your instincts.
  1. Always believe your child. My daughter wasn’t, and still isn’t, a talker. If she ever hinted or gave me an indication that she was struggling, I believed her. There were many people who suggested her behaviour was attention seeking and whilst in rare circumstances this could be true, a child doesn’t seek attention for no reason at all. You will never regret listening, but you might one day regret not

What Shouldn’t a Worried Parent Do?

  1. Blame yourself. This happened to my eldest child, when I had no real experience of teenage behaviour or what was ‘normal’. There’s a temptation to blame yourself but I learnt (the hard way) that this really doesn’t help. You have to move forward and look ahead at how best to help your child in this current situation. You did what you did at the time with the best of intentions. Don’t we always?
  1. Walk the path alone. Parenting teenagers is hard. Parenting a teenager with mental health problems is even harder. Seek out people who are walking the same path as you. If you don’t know anyone personally then ask around or look on social media – there are a lot of Facebook support groups out there and the solidarity can make such a difference.

Six years on and my daughter still battles with her mental health. She’s currently six months into an intense residential therapy programme and we are hopeful this will be the key to a bright and happy future for her. Her story is unique, many adolescents get the help they need early on and never experience mental health struggles ever again. I hope if you’re reading this and it’s resonated with you, you’re able to find the help that your child needs. Keep fighting and stay strong; you’re not alone.

A heartfelt thank you to Suzanne for sharing her story and her advice with us; we know it will help so many people. Suzanne’s blog Inside, Outside & Beyond is a total delight, and you can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.


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