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09/18/2019 12:04 EDT | Updated 09/23/2019 14:00 EDT

How Do You Cope When Your Child Has A Mental Illness?

It might sound trite, but self-care is really important.

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A psychological disorder didn’t happen because of bad parenting. 

Cathy and Shawn Walsh’s daughter was near the end of grade eight when things started to go wrong. She started withdrawing. She stopped wanting to play the sports she used to love.

They’re reticent to discuss her symptoms in too much detail, because they feel it’s her own story to tell. (For the same reason, they asked that their daughter’s name not be used in this piece.) But things continued to escalate, to the degree that in in the three years since the issues began, they’re now overly familiar with psychiatric terminology, and with both the limits and the benefits of hospitalization for mental illness

They still don’t know what particular condition their daughter has, Shawn and Cathy told HuffPost Canada — she’s received a slew of diagnoses, but none that precisely encapsulate her condition. Some disorders can’t officially be diagnosed before a patient is 18, they said, so they’re still waiting for an actual name and explanation of what’s wrong.

But in the mean time, they’ve largely learned to manage, with therapy, treatment, and lots of outside help.

Watch: Ways for parents to foster good mental health. Story continues after video.

About half of Canada’s population will have had some kind of mental illness by age 40, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Broadly, mental illness affects an estimated 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth — a number that amounts to somewhere between one and two million children in 2010.

There’s an enormous toll on the family and caretakers of people who are sick. But when someone is suffering a physical ailment, there’s at least the (extremely minimal) comfort that can come from opening up about it. With mental illness, which is increasingly common but still stigmatized, it’s much harder.

There are more and more resources available for how to help a family member through a mental health crisis, a situation that’s still huge and difficult and daunting. But self-care for caretakers is still a burgeoning concept.

It’s difficult to look after another person if you haven’t thoroughly cared for yourself. Here are some ways to try to look after yourself when your child is having a mental health crisis.

Try to avoid your misplaced guilt

Cathy Walsh said that when her daughter’s illness became apparent, she couldn’t help but blame herself.

“We know now, after dealing with it for a few years, that there’s probably nothing we could have done differently. It’s mental health, and you have no control over that,” she said. “But in the early stages, that was a huge thing from my perspective. Where did we go wrong, and how could we have helped her?”

Guilt is an understandable instinct, especially for parents, who tend to feel guilt about everything. But it’s one you should try hard to work against. A psychological disorder didn’t happen because of bad parenting. It happened because of the child’s brain chemistry.

...But don’t be afraid to express your feelings

Airing your anxiety, embarrassment, or hurt to a therapist or trusted friend can be a great way to manage those feelings. If you’re a parent, “you may grieve for the future you thought your child would have,” the American Psychological Association says.

That’s totally natural, and while you don’t want to expose your sick family member to those feelings, it can be infinitely helpful to have someone who will listen while you work on them.

Stay active

Even if you can’t hit the gym as often as you’d like, any exercise is better than none. Being active can help with both your physical and emotional health, according to experts at Harvard Medical School.

Put in time with your other family members, too

This is especially significant if you have more than one child. Your other kid(s) may not need as much of your help, but you want to make sure they aren’t being neglected, either. This is taking a toll on them, as well.

Work in time to relax

Once again: it might sound trite, but you really can’t help someone if you don’t also make time for yourself. Whatever brings you comfort and relaxation — whether it’s bubble baths, meditation, reading, painting, playing video games, watching bad TV — make sure there’s room for some of that in your schedule.

Check out local resources for support

Provincial government pages generally list resources for both people with mental illness and their families, so check out your province’s site and talk to your family doctor. But there is still a dearth of services for the families of people who are suffering, which is why the few that exist are so important.

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There are still very few resources available, but it's worth checking out what's available in your area.

One of the resources that helped the Walshes was the Family Navigation Project (FNP) at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. The concepts that make up the FNP are that people need help making it through the complicated world of the medical system, and that the entire family dynamic shifts when one person is ill.

The Walshes recognized early that hospitals are great at treating a crisis, but they aren’t usually equipped for aftercare. And calling the police — something crisis lines will suggest if they think the risk of self-harm or harm to other is likely — doesn’t really help, either.

“The police aren’t equipped to deal with mental health, really,” Shawn said. “If the police get involved, they will engage the hospital system. The hospital system will stitch you up send you back home. They’re not a treatment facility.”

What parents of children with mental illness need, he said, is “a bridge” between the crisis and a longterm solution.

The Walshes are already experienced at navigating the medical system. They have a 21-year-old daughter with developmental disabilities; when she was an infant, Cathy left her career to look after their firstborn full-time. But still, they were taken aback at how confused they were, trying to figure out what was wrong with their younger daughter and who could best help her. 

“The fact that we got lost — I just can’t imagine what other families that don’t have the time resources, the education, the financial resources that we are lucky enough to have, how lost they might get,” Shawn said.

The Walsh family know they have a lot of challenges ahead, but they’re thrilled they have a way through, and participate in many of the FNP’s programs and initiatives

They’ve found their bridge. But so many other families, in a wide variety of communities across the country, are still looking for their own.