“Raising a child with mental illness is ‘a rollercoaster of unexpected highs and lows.’”
That’s a description from a parent of a child who experiences severe mental illness.It’s certainly not a roller-coaster anyone would willingly ride; however, parents of mentally ill children don’t have a choice and must take things day by day and sometimes, hour by hour.
As parents who don’t face the challenge of a child with a chronic illness, we ache for our friends who do and wonder how we can help. We know offering up the usual “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know” won’t be effective; just like us, our friends aren’t likely to reach out. It’s up to us to follow through with the support.
What can we say or do that would be most helpful? We looked to the US Department of Health and Human Services, The Mighty, and our own experts for the following advice:
- Call to express your concern and support, with the understanding that you will check in regularly. Sometimes just hearing your voice may be enough to brighten their day. If you are worried about being disruptive, send your friend a text message to let you know you are thinking about them.
- When your friend brings up the challenges they face, be responsive and listen. Giving your friend a patient and receptive audience for this kind of “thinking out loud” is remarkably helpful.
- Include your friend in your social plans just as you always would, but be understanding if they repeatedly decline. Just being invited is meaningful.
- Offer specific help and support in a way that assumes your offer won’t be turned down. For example, explain you are making a double batch of a meal and will stop by with dinner on Thursday, or if you can run some of your friend’s errands on Saturday while you’re running yours.
- Remind your friend of their strength. Hearing, “You’re a good Dad,” “You are doing the best you can,” and “I know you’ll get through this,” can be the emotional boost they need to get through the day.
- Stay aware of your friend’s inevitable emotional highs and lows. Progress in a child’s treatment can be followed by a set back, and your friend may need a greater amount of support during that time.
- Look for opportunities to compliment your friend’s child. Even amid the turmoil, your friend looks at her child whom she loves and sees all of the wonderful traits he or she as. By complimenting the child too, your friend’s reminded that the wonderfulness of their child still shines for others.
The absolute most important way in which you can support a friend who is parenting a child with severe mental illness is reminding them that you care and that you value their friendship. That little piece of knowledge can be the shining light in a dark time.
With an eye to the best for our kids,
Michele Autenrieth Brown is the Vice President of Marketing and Development at Clarity Child Guidance Center. She became passionate mental health advocate after trying to navigate the system of care to support a family member. When she is not shuttling kids to practices or spending time with her husband, Michele is perfecting just what to say to get the perfect eye roll and sigh from her teen and pre-teen children.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950-NAMI (6264).