Brittany’s 7 Tips for Coping with Parent’s Diagnosis

This blog is written for the adolescents and young adults that have learned about their parent(s) mental illness diagnosis.

I am a child of a parent who has been diagnosed with depression during my late childhood. My adolescent and young adult years were the most difficult for me in terms of understanding depression & watching the depressive symptoms negatively impact my family. I had no guide to help me cope or manage my own emotions that I had towards my parent’s depressive symptoms.

These tips that I am sharing with you are parts of the road-map that I constructed for myself. You may find some of these tips unhelpful for you, depending on the severity or type of your parent’s mental illness. If so, please use these tips in a way that can assist you in finding your own ways of coping.

1.Become Knowledgeable: This tip is very important. The more (correct) knowledge you have about your parent’s diagnosis, the more likely you will be able to see your parent as the person they are, not as the symptoms. For example, my parent was and still is loving and supportive. However, when the depressive episodes take hold, the circulating negative thoughts temporarily prevent my parent from remaining in the moment with her family.

2. Find someone to talk to: Having a person you feel safe and comfortable talking with can be very helpful. This person can be either a therapist/counselor, a close relative, friend, or anyone else that will provide you with a safe place for you to express your emotions and share any challenges you’re experiencing. For me, I found a therapist and very close friends the most comforting because I, and my parent, wasn’t being judged or criticized. Who ever is this person for you, make sure they really listen to you and acknowledge your emotions and experiences.

3. Be kind to yourself and your parent: When I mention being kind to yourself, I mean giving yourself the allowance to feel how ever you feel each day. There were days when I was angry with how my parent’s depressive symptoms were impacting my family. I was sad some days because how I saw the depressive symptoms prevented my parent from getting out of bed some days. I was frustrated sometimes, too. I believe my ability to identify how I felt during these difficult years, and even today, have assisted me in increasing my understanding and compassion for my parent and their experiences. Once you are able to be kind to yourself, the kindness can expand to your parent.

4. Positively Interact with Your Parent: With depression, there may be times where the simplest tasks may be the most difficult, such as getting out of bed or cooking. I suggest modifying such activities so that you can do them with your parent. When I knew my parent didn’t want to cook because they lost their appetite, I suggested helping. Or even encouraging a game of scrabble. Playing any game or sharing a hobby that you and your parent can do together can remind the parent of the activities they enjoy when they are not in a depressed state. Lastly, if your parent doesn’t agree to any of your suggestions, use this time to focus on you. Doing a task that you enjoy can assist you in regulating your emotions and manage stress.

5. Start a Bucket List Together: This activity goes with #4. By starting a bucket list with your parent (when they are not in a depressed episode), can act as a verbal and written contract between the two of you. For instance, writing items on the list that are healthy and active, like simply walking around the block in your neighborhood or traveling to the beach, can (1) be a bonding experience for you two, (2) assists in getting both your parent and yourself active and moving, and (3) can create positive and rewarding experiences for all involved. Collaborating in the creation of this list can instill hope for your parent and your family.

6. Support for Siblings: When my parent experienced depressive episodes or was having a bad day, I stepped-up my duties as an older sister to include helping with homework, laundry, cooking and providing emotional support when it was needed. These tasks, for me at least, fit well with my role in the family as a mediator. When I noticed my sibling was having a difficult time, I tried my best to be a supportive. If it is too emotionally difficult or you are not at an age where this is possible,  I suggest assisting them in finding someone they feel they can talk to (as suggested in tip #2).

7. Know & Believe that RECOVERY is possible: This tip is as simple as that.
Below, are resources that can assist you in collecting information, enhancing your knowledge about mental health and mental illness, and provide you with the reassurance that you, and your family, are not alone.

Helpful Resources:

California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies: http://www.ccmha.org

Children of Parent with Mental Illness: http://www.copmi.net.au –> Even though this organization is based in Australia, there is lots of helpful information for children of parents with mental illness. There are resources for children, young adults, & parents.

Depression Facts: http://www.aboutdepressionfacts.com

Each Mind Matters: California’s Mental Health Movement: http://www.eachmindmatters.org

Healthy Place: America’s Mental Health Channel: http://www.healthyplace.com

Mental Health America: Depression: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net

National Alliance on Mental Illness: http://www.nami.org –> Can provide information about mental illness as well as family support at chapters throughout the country

You are NOT Alone

As I begin to create my place within the social work profession and the field of mental health, I have noticed that a specific population is not being addressed or shown concern within the United States: children and adolescents of parents with a mental illness.

I fall into this category.

The reason I feel compelled to shed light onto this population is because, at the moment, no one is. No one is addressing the fact that children are impacted by parents with a mental illness.

As a child and as an adolescent, I was not fully aware of what depression was. I did not understand what it meant when my parent told me they had depression. All I understood was that it was difficult for them to get out of bed (but didn’t understand why) and noticed that they were not laughing or smiling as much as they use to (but I didn’t know what changed). There were no clear or concise answers to explain.

The knowledge of what mental illness was, at the time, was not understood until I was in an undergraduate psychology course during my freshman year. From the time my parent told me that they were experiencing depression until the time I learned fully what it was, eight years had passed. It is not the fault of my parent or family members for not having explained further; I believe it was the stigma surrounding mental illness that prevented them from explaining further. It is still the stigma that prevents the uncomfortable discussions, like that one so many years ago, from occurring even today (maybe until now). I also think that my family wanted to protect me from the truth of our reality.

Even after having learned what depression and mental illness was at the age of 18, five more years passed until I learned about two amazing resources that would have been helpful for me. The two resources that can assist children and adolescents in gaining a clearer understanding about what their parent(s) and family is experiencing is an Australian’s national initiative called Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

1. The Australian initiative called Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) promotes support and resources for children of parents who are experiencing a mental illness (COPMI, 2012). To learn more information and have access to their resources, check out the website at www.copmi.net.au.

2. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers support groups for (1) spouses and partners, (2) families and friends, or (3) parents who have a child who is experiencing a mental illness. However, there are no support groups for only children of parents with a mental illness (NAMI, 2013). For more information about the resources and support groups that NAMI provides, please visit their website at www.nami.org to find a location near you. 

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