We were completely devastated the first time we took our son to the mental health crisis stabilization unit. It was the culmination of a long, difficult evening where he became increasingly defiant, angry, depressed and suicidal. We finally convinced him to get in the car with us, and we drove to the unit.
After we admitted him, my wife and I just cried. Our greatest fears were becoming true. After years of prayers, hundreds of hours of therapy (his and ours), medication, special education programs at school, trying to plug him into church youth group and good mentors—and anything else we could think of to help him and us—we were at our wits end. We finally had to turn to a mental health unit to keep him safe and us sane. Were we complete failures as parents? We felt so. And this was mixed with the strange feeling of relief, though we didn’t want to admit it. We had 48 hours (the length of his admission at the unit) of peace at home.
We know we are not alone in this experience, but we have often felt alone. There has certainly been a rising awareness in many churches of the need to create supportive groups and space for children with disabilities and their families and parents, particularly persons with developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy, down syndrome, vision impairment and various intellectual disabilities. I think this is wonderful, and I hope churches continue to grow in this. However, while this is vitally important, there is a whole category of disability that Christians and churches often do not know how to handle: mental health disabilities or disorders(MHDs).
MHDs such as bi-polar disorder, oppositional defiance, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, psychosis and other psychological challenges are often hidden. That is, while people can often tell that someone who is blind or displaying downs syndrome has a disability, the same is not often the case with MHDs. When people see a child with erratic, unsocial or defiant behavior, they often do not think of those behaviors as coming from a disability. Instead, they may simply think the child has a bad attitude, is rebellious or has bad parenting.
Another common situation is for children with MHDs to act out in the safety and context of the family home but to act completely fine and “normal” in public. Parents become worn, stressed and exhausted and may share with friends about what is going on at home. But because the friends and those in church or public only see the child acting fine, if not almost angelic, they can’t quite believe or picture the radical change that takes place as soon as the child goes through the front door of their house. The friends may listen to the parents with a bit of skepticism, quietly assuming the parents are over-exaggerating.
The hiddenness of MHDs, along with peoples’ lack of awareness of what they are and how to respond, put those families, both the children and the parents, in an incredible bind. Often, they may feel more and more isolated. Others don’t understand or know how to help. In many cases the friends may actually distance themselves, unsure of how to interact with a “problem” child and not wanting their own children to be influenced by him or her or what is seen to them as bad parenting.
No easy answers
As parents, we observed and felt all of these reactions, even in churches. At times we would reach out to pastors who would listen to, pray for and support us as best they knew how. Family and well-meaning friends would likewise listen and offer words of encouragement. But, at the end of the day, there was little they could actually “do,” and they couldn’t relieve the sense of isolation and aloneness we increasingly felt from many others. There was, in short, no easy answers or a how-to pamphlet on how churches and our Christian friends could support our child, us and families like us.
So, at this point in the journey, what are some suggestions that I can offer churches and other Christians? Here are some initial ideas.
Don’t too quickly fault a child with an MHD for his or her behaviors. Would we accuse a blind person who trips over a curb of being clumsy or clueless? Or of having parents who didn’t properly teach them to look where they were walking? Of course not. Neither should we quickly label a child with an MHD as being unsocial, bad tempered or simply “strange.” Of course, sometimes children with an MHD behave strangely or badly because they, like any child, are simply being selfish or immature in that moment. But often, perhaps much more often than people realize, the behaviors stem from the disability. The child simply doesn’t have the same capacity as others to regulate their behaviors, emotions and social interactions.
Understand the shame felt by children with an MHD and their parents. No one wants to be labeled as “schizophrenic” or having “bi-polar.” Though it can be important and helpful for a therapist to talk about these as a diagnosis in a clinical setting, they quickly feel shameful when used by others outside of the therapist office. This is a huge dilemma for people with an MHD. If a parent or child labels the behavior to others it might help others better understand and accept the behavior. But it can also backfire, causing people to feel even more awkward and uncertain with the child and family.
Where possible, provide the possibility of mentors. Every child with an MHD has different needs. But often they can use a big brother or sister to spend time with them, play with them one-on-one and accept them, behaviors and all. It may take a special amount of patience, but it may not necessarily require much more skill than that.
Provide safe places for parents of MHD children. Parents are in a double bind. They don’t want to risk talking about their child’s problems and potentially add to the stigma and judgements that people may already make about their child. But they desperately, desperately want to talk to others and gain support. Also, they know that their child’s story of an MHD is exactly that—it belongs to their child, and ultimately it is up to the child to decide how much and whom to tell. The parents curate a sacred thing, not to be handled lightly. And yet, their child’s story deeply intersects with and impacts their own. They too need care and support, some of which can only be conveyed by sharing some of what the child is going through. Parents can use safe places with other parents of MHD children or with others who simply get it.
Offer practical help. A very meaningful and helpful form of support we received from our church in the midst of our heartbreak and chaos were meals and lawn care. This practical help provided us with just a few less things we had to spend time and energy on. Other ideas of practical help to MHD families might be to provide a few hours of respite for the parents to go on a date or catch up on sleep, gift cards to restaurants or offer to clean or provide cleaning services for their house.
Our son’s problems haven’t gone away, but they probably never will. He—and we—has to learn what life and family looks like, MHDs and all. Our hope is that churches can continue to grow and be safe places where families like us can experience worship and God’s community in an understanding and safe way.
The author is writing anonymously to respect his/her family’s privacy.