On this week's Parenting With Playdate Planet radio show, I interviewed my husband and child psychiatrist, David Axelson, to talk about how parents can recognize signs of mental illness in their children and where to turn for help if they do. In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, this topic is unnervingly topical. I was impressed by a courageous blog post on Huffington Post by a mother of a young teenage boy with unpredictable mood swings and violent outbursts. She wrote that Adam Lanza could have been her son. Although she has taken her child to see many doctors and has tried many medications, they have as yet been unable to successfully manage his behavior. No insurer will pay for extended long-term in-patient treatment so when he does get admitted to the hospital, he is discharged within a few days after his violent episode has calmed down. This mother lives with a ticking time bomb despite her best efforts as a parent.
Clearly, we need to revamp our mental health system in this country. Strides have been taken. The Mental Health Parity Act and Obamacare should at least help increase the amount of coverage for mental illness and restrict insurance companies\' ability to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions. But we have a critical shortage of child psychiatrists, laws that often make it difficult for doctors to provide necessary treatment, and a pervasive stigma that deters families from seeking help.
My own journey with parenting a child with mental illness has been a challenging, yet hopeful, one. In second grade, my son began to describe experiencing uncomfortable thoughts that he could not control. It turned out he was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. For him this disorder did not manifest itself in compulsive hand-washing, but in intrusive and persistent thoughts that he did not like, but could not stop on her own. He began a course of treatment with a child psychiatrist which included taking medication. But the medication worked and he no longer suffers from these disturbing thoughts.
He does however continue to battle anxiety and ADHD. As my husband explains in our interview, mental illnesses often present together so people often struggle with multiple sets of symptoms. We resisted treating his ADHD because he was already being medicated for the OCD, but by the end of fourth grade, he was on the verge of a breakdown at school because he could not tolerate reading and writing and was unable to complete assignments. After he went on stimulant medication, the change was nothing short of miraculous. My son, who had such poor handwriting that he was considered to have a writing disability, was writing clearly and legibly. Although reading was not pleasurable for him, he was able to do it and keep up with all of his work. He is now an 8th grader, an A student who independently manages all of his work load. He still has some social challenges, perhaps as a result of his ADHD or because he lost some critical formative years while we were struggling to diagnose and treat his OCD, but he is friends with all of the boys in his grade and each year improves on his social interactions.
I would urge any of you reading this who are concerned about a child to take your son or daughter to someone for an evaluation. There is no shame in mental illness. A child with ADHD or depression or OCD is no different than a child with diabetes. It is not a reflection of your parenting or his bad behavior. It is a function of brain chemistry. We must get past those outdated and unproductive ways of thinking.
As we approach the holidays, I am frequently invited to attend charitable events. In my city, many of these events seem targeted towards funding the local children's hospital. I love the hospital, my daughter was there recently for a few days with a hand infection, and received wonderful treatment. But my experience showed me how rich in resources the hospital is. The building is beautiful, with multiple play spaces and private rooms for the patient and a parent. In my city, children with mental illness are not hospitalized here; they are in a unit in the psychiatric hospital. That hospital is not bright and friendly, but nobody raises money for a psychiatric hospital.
I hope that we will take a look at our mental health system, and our culture, and decide that we need to speak openly about these illnesses and together try to make a change.