May is Mental Health Awareness Month. A few years ago, I would have said that due to my training in education, open conversation with knowledgeable friends and family, and experiences with mental health issues, I was pretty on top of those types of issues with my children. Let me tell you point blank, knowing as a professional and understanding as a parent are two very different things. I want to share a bit of our family’s journey as a way of paying it forward, for all of the support and openness we received from others, at the moment when I discovered that I didn’t know anything.

The Curvy Road

Sometime in the middle of seventh grade, my daughter rather casually said to me, “Mom, I think I might be depressed.” I went directly into appropriate response mode and said, “Hmm… why do you think so?” She answered that she looked it up on WebMD and she had all the symptoms. Be honest here, what would you say? I tried not to smile but pretty quickly discounted her self-diagnosis because … well … WebMD! I did what I considered due diligence, went through the symptoms with her, checked in with her school counselor, told my daughter to keep me posted.

Here’s the thing, it didn’t look like depression.

Spoiler Alert: It was.

Half a year later, she brought it up again but still didn’t really seem depressed. We discussed it and came to the conclusion that even if it wasn’t depression, it was something, and seeing a therapist would be a good idea.  We decided on a few lifestyle changes that would hopefully help while I did the run around with her insurance about who and what was covered. Slogging through red tape is always mind-numbingly slow, but without a real sense of urgency on my part, it was slower.

A month or so later, everything changed. My daughter told me she had attempted suicide. This was my darkest day as a mother, full of fear and guilt. I skipped the red tape, consulted every mental health specialist I knew, and got her into therapy immediately. We discovered that puberty had triggered parts of her brain and personality to create an internal issue that couldn’t necessarily be detected externally. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder.

The Happy Ending

My daughter responded very well to therapy. A friend (who kindly shared her own journey with me as I struggled to come to terms with a shifting reality) explained that just having someone acknowledge what you’re living with and that person further trying to help, takes fifty percent of the burden away.

When the therapist suggested we consult with a psychiatrist about the use of medication as a possible tool, I again struggled with my decision. While I’ve never thought badly about people taking medication, I am careful about all medication (even over-the-counter) and was fearful of the horror stories from teens. Yet another lovely friend shared the experience she had with her children. Her conclusion: If it can fix what is wrong inside, so they can live a whole life on the outside, it’s what they need.

With so much wisdom and hope, I pursued that avenue, found a cautious psychiatrist that took her time, and eventually prescribed a very small dose of medicine.

Just over a year after that dark dark day, I am so happy to report that both health care professionals have declared success. While there is still work to be done, my daughter looks to the future with hope, reacts to the world appropriately (for a teenager), and has learned coping methods for the stressful emotions that are inevitable.

Looking Back

Our whole family grew through this experience. I can’t quantify all of the knowledge we gathered, but I can think of five things I’d pass on to just about any parent.

  1. Maintain open communication. I can’t think of how much worse things would have been if my daughter and I hadn’t been able to talk.  The same openness has also been critical to the recovery process.
  2. Take any talk of depression or other issues seriously. I wish I could go back and add urgency into our original conversations. Depression doesn’t always look like “Depression.” At the very least, you are modeling the importance of good mental health. At best, you’re saving them.
  3. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Adolescence, in particular, is complicated and hard to understand. While I wish I could change things, I’ve had to release the guilt. I did the best I knew how. I can only help someone else knows better.
  4. Be careful but not fearful. Options like medication can feel scary or intimidating but they can also be effective tools to get where you need to go.
  5. Be open about your experiences. The insight you give or get could be invaluable. We are all in this together!

For another mental health journey, I HIGHLY recommend you read through Will Wheaton’s address to NAMI Ohio’s statewide conference here. His story is powerful, moving, and a lesson to us all.