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Parents With Kids in the Throes of an Emotional Crisis Don’t Need to Feel Alone

I watched the scene onscreen unfolding as if I were watching a moment from my own teenage years play out right in front of me.

The teenage boy is inconsolably upset, threatening to hurt himself and everyone around him. Within seconds, his mother is trying to physically restrain him, sending her other sons out of the room with headphones on. The teenager sees a therapist, but the problems continue and he misses 36 days of school, because everyone there looks at him “like they hate him.” His parents try transferring him to another school once, then again, and again. Doctors say, “We’ll start on a low dose and increase gradually; the side effects are drowsiness, nausea, headache….”

The father tells the mother that it’s her fault for “giving in” to their son, and she, in turn, resists the therapist’s suggestion that their son be “sent away” because she knows how to take care of him, and “nobody can help him” like she can.

The Message Hits Home

“No Letting Go” is based on the true story of mom Randi Silverman, who struggles to help her child who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

I wasn’t bipolar, though I was misdiagnosed that way for a time. What I also know now is that, when I had these “episodes,” my own parents often watched helplessly or tried to physically restrain me and calm me down. Sometimes, they were so frustrated and upset that everything escalated.

Of course, my parents were doing the best they could, given the circumstances…and while they checked in with my therapists and psychiatrist often, that didn’t do them much good while I was in the throes of chaos. The truth is most parents don’t know what to do in this situation – or where to turn for help.

Recently, one woman shared with me that she didn’t know what to do while her teenage daughter was having a total meltdown.

“No therapist would talk to her on the phone – or me. I had no idea how to help her,” she said.

A Lack of Resources and Advocates

Indeed, Silverman – who is now an incredibly active mental health advocate – will be the first to tell you that even in 2016, there are few resources out there for parents who are looking for ways to help a child struggling with mental health issues. Even in the age of the Internet, supportive options for parents run as thin as their bank accounts after numerous attempts at finding solutions.

“A lot of parents will start out by going to the teachers for support, because, theoretically, schools should help too, but they don’t always know how to do that,” Silverman said. “And I know parents who don’t talk about it in their own families because people there can be critical or just don’t understand the situation.”

In fact, she says, even between parents, instinct often leads them to blame one another – or themselves, first. “You’re not tough enough,” or, “I’m a terrible parent because I can’t control my kid,” are just some of the thoughts that ruminate.

Struggling to Clear the Hurdles

Many parents just do what they can “to get through it,” just like their kids do, hoping that getting to high school and off to college will be the biggest hurdle, that their teenager will grow out of whatever “stage” their in.

“Those are the kids who end up self-medicating or totally falling apart in college, which, I believe, contributes to the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for those 15-24,” Silverman said.

That’s why she took matters into her own hands years ago, and currently runs multiple parent support groups in her hometown of Westchester with her co-founder, Pam Moskowitz, and volunteers with several other organizations.

“Years ago, I met a few mothers who had a child like mine and we became instant friends, meeting monthly for dinner. At the time, there were no support groups for parents anywhere,” she explains. “We knew there were many other families out there like ours who were suffering in silence and didn’t know where to turn for help.”

Silverman formed her Parent-to-Parent Support Group by creating a flyer and sending it out to school districts, psychologists, special education parent groups, and even lawyers. More than 30 parents attended their first meeting, and they have grown to include more than 800 families over the past five years.

The monthly support groups are held in members’ homes, where everyone must agree to complete confidentiality.

“Essentially, we start by sharing a bit of our stories and then open it up to the group. Usually about fifty percent are in crisis of some sort,” she said. “Some have been going through this for years and offer their advice/experience, and some are just beginning to discover what is going on.”

Currently, Silverman is in the process of forming a new organization that uses the film as a catalyst for conversations about youth mental health in communities throughout the country, and can be contacted through the movie’s website about setting up a screening in specific cities.

For parents outside of Westchester, there are resources like the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), but not all cities, towns, or states have chapters. For example, New York City has a specific Metro division in NYC that operates via hotline.

On both a local and national level, the organization offers three main resources:

  • The parent matching program, where a telephone-based service matching a parent familiar with the mental health system that has skills navigating with a parent who has a child going through a crises or is new to the system (English- and Spanish-speaking). Once matched it’s up to them to schedule about four calls within six weeks, giving parents who needs support basic info about the mental health system, knowing where to begin, and what to look for.
  • An on-site support group that meets twice a month on Saturdays for parents and caregivers.
  • A six-week educational course, where parents learn about diagnosis, treatment, medications, child welfare system, and the school system.

Additionally, there’s a New York City-contracted mobile crisis service that will send an assessment team to the home of a loved not in immediate danger but who feels they are in crisis.

By Any Means Necessary

The truth is, though, the stigma that still exists around these terms can cause parents to hesitate to reach out for help. To make matters even more complicated, clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, Executive Director of support program, notes that the mental health world is still fragmented and difficult to navigate—there are so many specialists, social workers, family therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists with varying degrees of expertise.

“If you have a heart problem, you go to a cardiologist. But when you’re looking at the bandwidth of normal and abnormal behavior among teenagers, you’re looking at any number of symptoms that could mean any number of things,” Gilliland said.

“Parents tend to isolate when their child struggles, which is why it’s so crucial to find a community they can talk to, who are wrestling with the same issues.”

He urges parents to think of their child first, and find help and support by any means necessary.

“We have to be able to reach out within their own communities and ask anyone they can think of for support, starting with their own therapist or their child’s doctor,” Gilliland concludes. “It’s not optional, if parents want to keep from losing their own minds.”


Image Courtesy of iStock

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