Feeling alone in parenting a kid with mental illness?
These programs remind us we're not
Parenting a child with a mental health diagnosis can feel very lonely.
"Their whole lives are rearranged around their loved ones," says Rick Allen, whose son, Ricky, 28, first told his parents he was hearing voices in 2012. "Life as they know it is no more. Everyone in the household is impacted."
After taking a family-to-family class at National Alliance on Mental Illness Central Texas, Allen and his wife, Casandra, both became teachers of the classes, which are 12 weeks long and help with topics such as navigating resources, how to understand your loved one's illness and how to talk to your loved one about the illness.
The classes, they say, helped empower them. "At least you know there are other people that are struggling," Casandra Allen says.
Sometimes even if you do lean on friends and family, it still feels like you're alone. "Even within your family, your family loves you, but they can't understand it because they're not going through it," says Teena Gray-Hale, whose son Tre, 15, was first hospitalized at age 11. Through their classes, Gray-Hale says, "I met so many fabulous people who had similar stories to mine. That support is important."
Before their son attempted suicide later in 2012 and they were given a sticky note with NAMI information on it, the Allens say they were ignorant. He says their community didn't talk about mental illness. Now that they are in the know, Rick Allen says, there were so many signs of the mental illness and suicidal thoughts.
"He was showing signs of mental illness we thought was just being a teenager," he says.
These include having scratches on his arms that they thought were caused by being a football player in high school. In reality, he was cutting himself.
He would be distant when they sat down to dinner, Casandra Allen says. "He would float away, and we would have to snap our hands to have him come back to us," she says. "You could see a vacant look in his eyes. We just thought he was either on drugs or (it was) attention deficit disorder. We didn't know it was the visions."
Gray-Hale says she thought her son was just really intense with his desire to pray, not knowing that he actually had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Four years later, she's become educated about his disease as well as about the resources that are available. She thought it would be easy to get help right away but learned about Austin's shortage of pediatric psychiatrists. Now she knows there's a mobile psychiatric team that you can call to get help, and there's now a psychiatric emergency room at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.
NAMI Central Texas classes also helped her navigate the school system and how to get resources and accommodations for Tre.
Through the classes, parents also learn warning signs or red flags that their loved one could be at risk for suicide.
Marcia Oakes' son Jake died by suicide in 2015 at age 17. Now she understands that there were warning signs. In middle school, anxiety was interrupting his sleep. A few years later, it was depression. "I liken what depression did to him like brain-washing," she says. He believed things his brain was telling him about himself that weren't true.
One of the things Oakes realized was that they needed to not be afraid to talk to him about what he was feeling. "We kept worrying we would overreact and he would shut down and stop talking to us," she says. "It caused us to not fully understand the gravity of the situation."
She knows that often, "when it comes to your own kid, we get really scared," she says. "We got too scared about overreacting; we didn't always follow our gut."
Oakes says she didn't realize how much she didn't know. "We needed to educate ourselves."
Karen Ranus, the executive director of NAMI Central Texas, adds, "We have to feel like we can address mental health for the health issue it is."
The organization has been trying to emphasize how common mental illness is and that there are tools for it. On the NAMI Central Texas website, namicentraltx.org, there's a crisis page with a downloadable card of information to have when you need to call 911, a suicide assessment card, and phone numbers for the crisis intervention teams for your county as well as emergency drop-in services and crisis hotlines.
Ranus says 1 in 5 kids are now impacted by a mental health diagnosis. NAMI Central Texas offers many classes for parents, teens and schools to become better educated.
One of the warning signs to be looking out for, Ranus says, is a persistent funk.
"It's one thing to be in a funk, we all get in a funk ... but when that funk is not one day or two days. When it turns into a week or two weeks."
Another example: When you have the kid who used to love going to volleyball practice that doesn't want to go.
Parents have to be careful that they don't diminish what their child is feeling when they are talking to their teens. What might seem like a little thing to an adult can be a bigger thing to kids, especially when kids are dealing with anxiety.
"Irrational things are very real," Ranus says. "When we shake our kid off and say, 'You're fine. Stop being dramatic,' we shut down the opportunity to talk about it."
Parents should also worry about experimental use of alcohol or drugs, self-harm or an eating disorder.
"Trust in your instinct," Ranus says. Even if people are telling you that you are overreacting, "like anything else, we can aim to be the fiercest advocate for our kids."
"Don't wait until there is a problem," Oakes says. "Have this be something we can talk about."
NAMIWalks Central Texas
When: 9 a.m. Sept. 28
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Information: Free to register at namiwalks.org