Approximately 20% of children are diagnosed with mental illness in a given year. Mental health issues can cause changes in their feelings or emotions; others have trouble controlling their behavior, and some suffer from anxiety. Sometimes for their classmates, these behaviors can seem funny, or scary, or make them shun the individual.
Acceptance and support can make a big difference for these children who often feel isolated, fearful, and alone. As our youth return to school, it’s a good time to have a discussion with parents and children about some ways to handle uncomfortable situations. How can we talk to our teens, preteens, even younger children?
Understanding can help bridge the chasm we see in students’ reactions to their surroundings and help them accept and cope with their illnesses. Below are some of the signs of inner struggles followed by suggestions to assist the children with mental illness who battle in social settings and coping skills. I used the acronym F.R.I.E.N.D.S. because those with mental illness often travel through the school years alone, without friends.
*Frightened, fear of fitting in, focusing on their work, that they are at fault or self-loathing.
-When speaking with our children, we can help them remember how they feel when they experience similar emotions. We can explain that those same fears are more intense for their classmates. We can encourage them to treat their schoolmates with the same fairness they want to be shown.
*Refusal to cooperate with teachers or classmates; they can react by throwing things or yelling or refuse to talk.
-We can talk with our children about appropriate reactions to volatile behavior. Stay relaxed, keep remarks to a minimum, respect them, reach out to them when they have calmed down, and react with kindness. Perhaps suggest reading together or another quiet activity.
*Intense emotions, both excitable or sadness.
-Remember first that they suffer from an invisible illness. We can’t see it like a broken arm or leg, but they are in pain. “I” statements can diffuse uncomfortable situations. “How can I help?” “I’d like you to join me at lunch or recess.”
*Embarrassed by their own behavior
-The students who act out in a class have a hard time expressing their emotions like other classmates. They can see it in themselves and often beat themselves up over it in their mind. Emotions that others find easy, they can find elusive as they try to express it. Encouragement for appropriate emotions, looking for something you both enjoy, and not laughing at them may ease the excitable energy that is often displayed.
*Noise levels can make behaviors worse
-Everyone has a different level of noise tolerance, but in mental illness, these can seem much louder and annoying to the individual. It helps to remember everyone has distinct needs. Keeping the noise level down, avoid making negative comments to them or about them may help the individual to respond in a calmer manner. School nurses and adults are there to help when situations get out of control.
*Different reactions that escalate quickly to things that no one else notices
-Mental illness can manifest small things into a dominating feeling. Often things that other classmates don’t even notice, can feel monstrous to a child with mental health issues. When we look for the things that we have in common, rather than the things that make us different, we can bridge the gaps in reaction to a manageable space. Discuss things that they both enjoy – games, TV programs, movies, etc.
*Sadness, shyness, and sensitivity are some outward signs of inner struggles.
-Ways to help those who battle mental illness can include simple things such as an approving smile, using soft voices (even if they are loud,) sitting beside them and being sensitive to their needs. It’s not our words that can make a difference, but support by sometimes staying silent and being present during times of stress.
Tomorrow is Mother’s day. I’ve celebrated this day for the past forty-two years. My first-born arrived the day after Mother’s Day that year, but I wore flowers that morning to church in anticipation of the upcoming event. That year, hubby had finished planting corn on Mother’s Day afternoon. As we visited his mom that evening, I announced that I planned to have the baby that night before he had a chance to start planting beans on Monday. I hadn’t started labor, I just made a flippant remark. Little did I know that labor would begin in a few hours – ten days before my due date. I held our newborn son the following afternoon after twenty-four hours of intense preparation.
Over the next six years, two more brothers and a sister joined in our yearly celebration of Mother’s Day. I am quite biased, but I think all four of them are amazing people. I’m proud of each of them for their compassion and caring attitudes for others and the goals they’ve each worked hard to achieve in their adult lives.
Last year, I wrote about my feelings about my journey with my daughter as she battles mental health issues. I still say, “Happy Mother’s Day to me! I am so grateful for my four children.”
Sometimes, I want to cry…
But maybe not for the common reasons that make a mom cry when her child has schizophrenia. Our child battled the symptoms and came through it as a survivor, a victorious survivor. But it took a lot of work and support.
As I read new information, I get emotional. How did we know how to do the things that we did to help our daughter, Amber, during her first episode of psychosis in 2004? I remember the feelings of frustration, hopelessness, helplessness. I also remember that I begged the Lord for help. I listened for an answer and followed the instructions given to us (my husband, Roy, and I.) Many of those answers came through the people around us. We just had to listen.
Some of the things came through our eldest son, Mitchell who’d spent hours researching articles at trusted sources on the internet. First, he encouraged us to leave our state of denial behind and act quickly. “I think she has schizophrenia,” was a comment I remember with clarity. “She’s not going to get well without treatment, she’ll only get worse,” he said to us without judgment, only compassion.
If I’m honest, I wanted to live in a bubble where I thought my love would fix the problem. Our son didn’t let me. He helped me face reality and as a result, we had Amber in forced treatment a little over one month after we moved her home. Today, over a decade later, she’s in a maintenance mode as she stays in treatment.
Other plans of actions came through our local NAMI organization and the classes they offered, as well as through ideas generated during my daily devotion/prayer time. Again, I listened and reacted. I treated her as a mom would treat all the other illnesses our children get, such as cancer. I let her rest when she needed it. I cared for her, took her to treatments, managed her medicines, and held her when she cried.
Slowly, Amber recovered through treatment which included medication, therapy, education, brain exercises, and lots of support.
Since 2004, I delved into published articles where I’ve discovered that early treatment is part of the equation that may allow long-term successful treatment. This morning, this article published on May 31, 2017, by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, almost brought me to tears.
“For people with psychosis in early-stage schizophrenia, early treatment is important. Patients whose psychotic symptoms go untreated for longer periods tend to have more severe symptoms and a lower quality of life, even after treatment.
New research published March 15 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology finds that a longer period of untreated psychosis is also associated with less connectivity to and from the striatum, a part of the brain linked to antipsychotic treatment outcomes.”
What if Mitchell hadn’t persisted? What if he hadn’t reacted the way he did which forced us into a court committal for hospitalization/medication? What if we hadn’t listened?
I read further…
“At the time the study began, participants had been taking antipsychotic medications for no more than 2 years. Brain scans were taken for each patient, and their symptoms were monitored for 12 weeks while they were treated with a second-generation antipsychotic (aripiprazole, risperidone, or risperidone plus an omega-3 fatty acid supplement).
The researchers found that not only did those whose symptoms had been untreated the longest have the worst treatment outcomes, they also had less brain activity connecting the striatum to specific regions in the brain’s cerebral cortex”
I highlighted the lines that drew the tears.
…a second-generation antipsychotic (aripiprazole, risperidone, or risperidone… About a month after we realized that our daughter needed help, the doctors prescribed an injectable antipsychotic to stabilize her. I read the list and knew she received one of them. In the beginning, she refused antipsychotic medications. The first doctor she saw told her she had mild depression and that’s where her brain wanted her to stay – she didn’t have schizophrenia – she didn’t need that medication. That’s when we went through the courts to force her to take medication. She stayed on the injectable for the first year or so. Later, she switched to pill form. In the spring of 2007, she understood that her brain needed medication to function properly – much like a pancreas needs insulin or metformin for diabetes.
…plus an omega-3 fatty acid supplement). Mitchell also brought bottles of high-quality fish oil supplements that she took each meal. He’d found an article about fish oil helping with brain function. He found the pills, purchased them for his sister and delivered them to our home. She had a steady dose of the omega-2 fatty acid supplement for the first few years.
I begged the Lord to send me wisdom. He did – through the people around me. He gave me the grace to listen to those wiser than myself. And it makes me want to weep in gratitude as Amber stays in recovery.
It’s been almost twelve years since we discovered she battled the symptoms of schizophrenia. Today, she lives on her own, works full-time and manages everything herself. She’s proof to me that early treatment does indeed work. What if I hadn’t listened? Would she be where she is today?
Sometimes I cry tears of gratitude.