It’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I wrote the majority of this post back in 2016 after I presented a NAMI program calling Ending The Silence to a large group of local high school sophomores. I’m re-posting today because awareness and action are as important now as ever, and because I’m passionate about eradicating the myths and stigma that persist around mental illness.
Every time I present to students, I explain that my authority on the subject comes from my lived experience of having a school age child diagnosed with mental illness. I make a point of telling the kids they aren’t alone, that there are people who are ready and willing to help them. I encourage them not to keep quiet and for sure not to keep secrets. I imply adults can be trusted. “We’re here for you,” I say. “I promise.” When the presentation is over, we leave time for Q&A. That’s when the conversation gets real.
Let me be clear: Our children are in pain.
On that particular day back on 2016, five minutes into the Q&A I saw firsthand sadness, despair, and overwhelm start to drip down their faces. We passed around a lot of tissues. My co-presenter and I were asked questions like: How can I make the pain stop? How can I force my parents to take my problems seriously? No one is listening to me, what can I do? We answered these questions as best we could, and then stayed longer to answer more questions. I sat with two students and suggested that maybe it was time to take their valid concerns to a trusted adult, like the school counselor. If their parents weren’t willing to help, someone else could.
“We did that,” they said. “She basically told us to get over it.” FULL STOP.
Parents: tried it.
Trusted adult: tried it.
Outcome: You’re on your own.
These are high school students. What do we expect them to do?
Look, I get it. Kids today. They can be dramatic; they can be seeking attention; they can be causing trouble for trouble’s sake. They’re teens after all—trouble is part of the job description. When our trouble started, that’s what I first thought. My daughter said she hated herself because she’d eaten a banana. Give me a friggin break, I thought, exasperated. I told her to quit the crap and to eat some damn food. I wanted her to get over her shit. These were not my proudest moments, but I knew no better. It took a while to understand that her (our) problem was real.
The statistics are staggering. Right now 1 in 5 adolescents is struggling with a mental health issue. Our children will grow up and turn into the 1 in 17 adults diagnosed with a severe mental illness. According to NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), 30 million Americans will struggle with a full-blown eating disorder. Millions more will battle food and body image issues that have untold negative impacts on their lives.
Sure, not every case is severe. Not every issue is dire. Maybe you think I sound dramatic. Maybe I do. That’s okay, because if you’re one of the parents that has been sticking your head in the sand hoping the problem will disappear, you’re taking too much of a risk.
Help is real. Hope is real. Recovery is real. My family is living proof of it. If you think your child is struggling, I’ve put together an helpful list of dos and don’ts for moving forward.
• Say, “Get over it.”
• Ignore pleas for help
• Assume the issue is only behavioral
• Assume the behavior is “normal teenage stuff,” a phase, or dramatics
• Let stigma keep you from reaching out for help (you are not alone)
• Let denial and fear prevent you from acknowledging there could be a problem or that the problem is bigger than you can handle
• Ditto anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and self-blame
• Allow your other responsibilities to interfere with seeking the help your family needs
• Take a teenager’s attitude personally (especially if there’s a mental health issue going on)
• Pay attention
• Speak and act with compassion
• Trust your gut, no one knows your child better than you do. If you sense there could be a problem, there could be a problem
• Keep them talking and ask questions
• Seek education on mental illness and assistance from qualified professionals (Consider taking NAMI's FREE Basics class. A new class is forming now, and begins in April.)
• Keep your expectations in check
• Investigate resources (money is always a concern with seeking out treatment options, but there are low cost and sliding scale options like the community counseling center at Cal Lutheran.)
• Advocate for your child, don’t take “no” or “we’re too busy” or “that’s not our problem” for an answer (especially when dealing with school resources. Read my post on IEPs here.)
• Remember: You are not alone
• Find a way to cope that works for you
The fact of the matter is that earlier intervention leads to better outcomes. (Read my post about early intervention here.)
Lives hang in the balance. Are you willing for your child’s to be one of them?