For many parents, the potential for their child to deal with mental illness can cause a lot of anxiety and fear. This is especially true for parents of queer (LGBTQQIAPP) youth, many of whom also worry about their child’s safety and their ability to live a full, happy, and successful life, given the many barriers and challenges many of us face.Statistically speaking, queer youth are more at risk for suicidal ideation and suicidality, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and substance abuse and addiction than their non-queer counterparts.
Children typically do not bring these issues up with their parents unless it is imperative for the youth’s immediate health. Many parents and kids do not know how to broach these conversations with each other. Reflecting on my own challenges with mental health, it has taken me many years to get to a point where I can be entirely open with my family about the challenges I’ve been dealing with. I believe this difficulty in expressing my mental health needs has two main causes.
First, I was afraid of beginning a conversation with my parents about mental health because of the nature of the battles I faced—I’ve dealt with addiction, suicidal ideation, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, all of which are heavily stigmatized in our culture. Also, and I’ll talk about this later, given how they interacted with my queer identity, I was afraid it wasn’t appropriate for me to discuss these issues with my family.
Second, and more important, I was clueless about what I was dealing with, and how I could even put words to what I was experiencing. It wasn’t until I got to college several years ago that I realized I had been dealing with these illnesses for the last five to eight years and was actually able to put a name to them and really develop a meaningful vocabulary to describe them. It also wasn’t until college that I felt empowered to seek adequate mental health care, through which I learned how I can share these issues and struggles with my family.
As a parent, you are only one-half of the equation—if your child is not ready to share what they are dealing with, you cannot and should not force them to. But there is a lot you can do in the meantime to create an environment in which your child can feel safe accessing information, getting educated, seeking help, and, eventually, taking to you.
Open up about your struggles with mental illness/mental health. Growing up, my family never talked about mental health. I assumed I was the only person ever, both in my family and in the world, to be dealing with what I was dealing with. This perception, I found out later, was completely erroneous on both accounts. I learned of many others, in particular in my queer community, who had dealt with these issues. But I also began to learn about the mental health issues people in my family were facing. For example, nearly everyone over the age of 15 in my family has PTSD, and several have struggled with depression. This was kept from me growing up because those family members didn’t want us to worry about them. However, if I had known about what they were dealing with, I could have identified with it and modeled their good reactions; namely, getting help from trained professionals, as they did, rather than suppressing the problems further until the problems exploded.
Advocate for better mental health education in schools and in community centers like youth groups and church groups. Many high schools have health classes, but rarely do these adequately discuss mental health needs and options for children who feel like they are struggling. Programs should be based on the assumption that mental health issues can affect everyone, and should promote different ways for students to access help if they feel it necessary.
Building off these previous two suggestions, try to see how you can further destigmatize mental illness and seeking mental help. This could be as simple as checking your language. Are you telling your child stuff like “stop being so crazy” often, or belittling their needs? Are you telling them to toughen up, or are you telling them it’s ok to ask for help? Try and see what messages you might be sending your child, even if they aren’t the messages you mean to send them.
Another important consideration is your child’s agency in their own mental health management. Empower them to not just ask for help, but to feel comfortable working with you to manage it well. This can be as simple as having them call to make the appointment, doing the research with you to find an adequate therapist, or discussing the different treatment options. Make sure that they are a valued part of the process and that they know how valued their collaboration with you is.
Even if their mental health care requires more drastic steps, such as hospitalization and institutionalization, it is important that they be a part of as many discussions about their health as possible. Their input should be encouraged and respected—though that doesn’t mean it should be followed always.
Tying this all together, their competence should be respected, valued, and encouraged. When your child knows that you believe them to have agency over their life, or at least certain aspects of their life, and that you respect that agency, they will be more willing and able to talk with you. Better yet, they will be more receptive to you reaching out to them because they will understand that you’re not trying to disenfranchise them; rather, if you create an environment in which they can explore and grow into a mature young person, they will be more willing to collaborate with you, especially with something like their mental health. Most importantly, they will be better able to admit if they are experiencing mental health issues.
I firmly believe that encouraging and empowering your child to take a more active role in their mental health management will instill more self-awareness if they have mental health issues. This belief is rooted in addiction research by Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University and the Drug Policy Alliance. According to Dr. Hart, when given the daily choice between their preferred drug and money, people with addictions who had admitted themselves to a hospital rehabilitation program almost always chose the money, even though the money wouldn’t be dispensed until the end of their three-week hospital stay, and the drug would be administered in the moment. What this demonstrates is that when people with addiction decide they want to make a change in their life, they are capable of making rational decisions. Whether they can follow through on their rational decisions is a different matter entirely.
More broadly, this suggests that when those dealing with mental illness are given more agency, they generally have the ability to make the rational decision. To make that rational decision, they must have some understanding of their needs—they must have some self-awareness of the problems they are dealing with.
As a parent, you have the ability to help your child cultivate a sense of responsibility for their health. By focusing on the larger systems that influence your child, and adapting them so your child feels empowered and self-aware enough to take initiative with regards to mental health regulation, you will not only help your child get better help, but you will set them up for success as they mature into an adult.
Erika Lynn is a white, feminine of center, mentally disabled organism who loves to frolic in fields and splash in the ocean. She’s lived a life as multiple genders and sexual orientations and enjoys critically exploring how gender and sexuality influence many aspects of our lives. Her approach to activism is intersectional, and she strives to be as race, ability, class, gender, sexuality and body conscious and positive as possible.
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