There are some questions we hear frequently from the parents we serve – and that we’ve asked ourselves, too, as parents of children, youth or young adults struggling with their mental health.
Questions like, How do I best advocate for my child? How do I keep myself strong? We’ve put together a list of them here, answered by our Family Peer Supporters.
Q: What if the physician won’t speak to me about my youth‘s health?
A: This is something that parents, justifiably, can find extremely frustrating. However, confidentiality laws are very strict and mental health professionals must follow the law. Therefore, your child must agree before you can be involved in or informed about their treatment. Have conversations with your child and help them understand why you want or need to be informed about their care. If they resist, try to find limited areas where they would be comfortable having you involved. There are forms your child can sign that allow the health care professionals to share information with you. Thankfully, there is an ongoing shift in attitude within the mental health system. Parents are becoming more engaged and are beginning to be recognized as partners in service delivery. This is a gradual process, and one which takes more time for some than others. As a last resort, the law is clear that while mental health professionals cannot answer your questions or share information without your child’s permission, they can and should accept relevant input from you. Consider putting your thoughts or concerns in writing and dropping them off at the service provider’s office. Be aware that the health care professional may choose to share your input with your child.
Q: How can I best advocate for my child?
A: To be an effective advocate for your child you need to be knowledgeable, so educating yourself is important. The resources on this website are a good place to start. Ask for professional help, starting with your family doctor. Always be mindful of your child’s right to privacy and the importance of their trust in you. Seek support from other sources. Join a support group and learn what services are available, and what other parents have done to advocate for their child. You will need to be persistent. Remember that you know your child and that you hold the baseline for what they are like when they are well.
Q: What do I tell my family?
A: When the issue is mental health, parents often feel that other family members judge them and their child. More than likely your family members, like society in general, have limited or incorrect information about your son or daughter’s illness. The stigma around mental illness throughout the years has really limited our understanding of mental health issues, but fortunately the conversations have begun and people are becoming more aware. You might want to sit down and explain the situation to your family members. Give them some educational information or helpful websites so they can learn more, and let them know how they can help you.
Q: What do I do if I am worried about suicide but the hospital doesn’t admit my son or daughter?
A: As parents, our number one priority is our child’s safety, but the Emergency Department will generally only admit someone if they feel that the risk of harm to the individual or to others is significant. The ER professionals do a suicide risk assessment. Make sure you ask to provide input to the person doing the assessment, so that they are aware of everything that you are seeing – there may be aspects of your child’s thoughts or behaviours that your child does not consider important, or that they prefer to avoid mentioning. Remember that if your child is not admitted, you still have the mobile crisis teams and 911 available should things escalate when you return home. Suicide assessment is not a perfect science, so if you are concerned, stay vigilant and do not hesitate to take additional action if things change. If your son or daughter has no current mental health support and is not admitted at the Emergency Department when you feel there is a risk of suicide, then be sure to seek out other professional help. The walk-in clinics at both Crossroads Children’s Centre www.crossroadschildren.ca and Youth Services Bureau www.ysb.on.ca are available to you. The Mental Health Crisis Line can link you with the Local Crisis Team www.crisisline.ca.
Q: What do I do when my son or daughter is in crisis?
A: Fortunately there are a number of very effective crisis intervention services available. It is difficult sometimes for parents to determine when they should ask for crisis help. On the Support Services page of this website you will find a comprehensive list of services, which vary based on the age of your child and youth. Remember, if you or anyone’s personal safety is at risk, call 911 immediately. While you are waiting for help in a crisis situation, try to make the environment safe and keep all stress to a minimum. Strive to stay calm and reassure your youth.
Q: How can I help my other children understand mental health issues?
A: It can be very difficult for siblings to understand and cope. Often, the family’s attention is almost completely focused on the ill child, and the other children can feel left out and sometimes resentful. In addition, their mentally ill sibling’s behaviours are more than likely affecting them and their day-to-day lives. Sharing information with them can help – try asking your ill child’s service provider to meet with your other children and help them understand their sibling’s challenges. Even though as a parent you may be feeling overwhelmed, try to keep in mind that your other children still need your love and patience. They may be feeling afraid and confused, so let them know that you are open to any questions they have, and that while you may not have the answers you will try to find them.
Q: How do we cope when my spouse/partner and I disagree on how to manage our child/youth?
A: When a child has an illness, whether mental or physical, their caregivers’ relationship often becomes strained. It’s not unusual for partners to see things differently and to disagree about treatment plans or family strategies. Try to openly discuss your differences and establish a plan to work together. Sometimes attending information sessions or training programs together can help you to get on the same page. Don’t be afraid to get couples counselling – a child’s mental illness can be a real challenge for you as a couple, and often professional support can be very helpful. Your child needs both of you, and you and your partner need each other to help you get through this difficult time.
Q: How do I keep myself strong?
A: It is always a challenge to take care of ourselves when our focus is on taking care of our son or daughter. However, as the airlines remind us, we have to put on our oxygen masks first in order to save our child. Similarly, it’s hard to save a drowning person if we ourselves can barely tread water, so we really do need to make time for self care. This can be different for each person, but generally one important goal is to remain connected with others, since mental illness (and the stigma that surrounds it) can be very isolating. Ask your friends and relatives for help. Many people do want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need: it might be just having them there to listen. Educate yourself so that you know what is happening and how to cope. Knowledge can be very empowering, and often reduces your sense of helplessness. Eat well and get as much sleep as possible. Stay active physically. Do things for yourself whenever possible, even if it’s just taking a ten minute break for a cup of coffee. Some parents watch a funny movie to help reduce their stress. Whatever works for you, try to give yourself permission to do it. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if things are becoming overwhelming.
Q: How do I help my family while we wait for services?
A: There are many strategies you can consider while waiting for services. Consult our brochure, Waitlist Survival Strategies or call us at 613-321-3211 and request a mail-out copy. One of the best ways to help your family is to educate yourself and demystify mental illness. There are many programs specifically designed for parents and caregivers, such as Strengthening Families Together, offered by the SSO at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Subscribe to our newsletter and learn more.
Q: How do I support my son or daughter with mental health concerns?
A: It is important to remember that some of your child’s more challenging behaviours stem from their mental illness and are not always within their control, so patience and understanding go a long way. Keep the lines of communication open, and be sure to let your son or daughter know that you are there for them to support them. They may be feeling very afraid and alone, and so reassuring them is very important. Openly ask them what you can do to help – what is helpful, and what is not. Try to keep the stress levels in their environment low, if possible. As parents, we need to act as our child’s advocate to get them the services they need, so reach out for professional help for your child. We also need to hold the hope that their situation will improve, because sometimes your child can’t see a brighter future. Recovery is possible, and hope is essential.
As a mental health professional working with children, youth and families, I am grateful for PLEO and the support it provides children/youth and their families. As a parent-led organization, it fills the gap that professional mental health services do not provide. If PLEO did not exist I simply don’t know what I would recommend in its place.Dr. Michael Cheng Co-Founder, eMentalHealth.ca; Psychiatrist at CHEO; Associate Professor at uOttawa