by Kathy Kuhl
Sometimes when children struggle with learning challenges, they also struggle with their mental health. I’ve talked with hundreds of homeschooling parents and a few have told me that their children suffer from depression, anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder.
Don’t assume that if your child needs professional help, that means you are a failure as a parent.
Don’t think that trusting God means you should not talk to a counselor or mental health professional. Don’t think that if you just pray harder and have more faith, you won’t need a counselor. (Maybe God intends to use a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor to help you or your child. Such services have helped me and people I care about.)
Don’t think that if you read more, you can diagnose your child. There is something to be said for professional training, years of practical experience, and you and your child or teen getting another perspective.
Like many parents, I am wary of the tendency of a few psychiatrists to think of pills as solutions. But that is no reason to avoid all mental health professionals. It just means we need to look around for those with a wiser perspective.
I believe psychiatric medications are over-prescribed in the US, and that there is a sad trend to call too many things “disorders.” Psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh of Johns Hopkins University said in an interview that to understand mental disorders we have to understand their causes. Depression in children, for example, can be chiefly the result of a chemical imbalance or can be caused by a difficult situation: death of a parent, divorce, or other crisis. Different causes require different solutions. McHugh says that knowing a cause of a disorder also can help us know which virtues we need to cultivate to become healthy.
How can you find help?
After all, most people aren’t as ready to recommend psychologists as they are plumbers. Try asking your clergy and your physician. If you know a trusted friend who has received good mental health services, ask for recommendations.
Unless it was an emergency, you would research surgeons before you chose one to operate on your child. The same should be true for mental health services.
And if it is an emergency, don’t wait. Call 911, a counseling or suicide prevention hotline, or go to a hospital. You can save a life.
If it’s not an emergency, how can you prepare to get the most out of an appointment?
When a child may have a mental illness, you can find information about warning signs and a list of common mental health conditions in children here at the National Alliance on Mental Illness website. This grassroots mental health organization raises awareness of mental illness and provides support and education.
They also publish this fact sheet: 10 Warning Signs in Teens and Young Adults.
NAMI also has hundreds of local support groups and offers courses both for people helping family members with mental illness, as well as for teens and young adults managing mental health conditions.
Another good resource was recommended to me by Dr. Richard Ruth, a psychologist in Silver Spring, Maryland. I have not met Dr. Ruth, but when I asked his advice on what to read, he replied:
I usually direct parents first to the (all free) public information publications of the National Institute of Mental Health.
But I stress that what they read should be a starting point for a conversation with a mental health professional, not a substitute for it. There’s so much information that it’s a challenge for a family to integrate it all, and, too often, books for parents present opinions as facts – just like they do when discussing home schooling. If parents read something from the NIMH, make a list of their questions or concerns, and schedule a consultation with a mental health professional, a lot can be accomplished. It’s no longer the case that just talking over things yields an automatic recommendation for years of therapy. At least not in my office.