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Caring for a Child With a Mental Illness

With your support and love, I know your child can build a life, too.

I don’t envy anyone whose child is diagnosed with a mental health challenge. You learn that they’re walking a difficult path—without a guide—and one you may not have even recognized that they’re walking. My father once told me that if he could, he would take the suffering I’ve endured because of my OCD and carry it himself, in a heartbeat. I suspect many parents of mentally ill children can understand that sentiment.

But as frustrating and heartbreaking as it must be, no parent can carry their child’s burden, any more than my dad could carry mine. In caring for a child with a mental illness, your responsibility is the same as any other parent’s: to support your child, to lift them when they stumble, to guide them away from dangerous roads, and to help them until they’re ready to strike out on their own, if they can.

Those of us with mental health challenges may require more support, more care, more understanding. Taking care of one of us cannot be easy, and you’ll probably make mistakes along the way. But, I promise that you can help your child thrive, as long as you know when to speak up, and when to listen. That said, I understand that “you’re going to screw up, but hopefully you won’t screw up too badly” isn’t the most inspirational message. So if I can have your attention for a moment longer—I’d like to offer you a message of hope.

One thing I’ve realized through writing and therapy is that, through most of my childhood and adolescence, my intrusive thoughts OCD ran my life. I was miserable, my parents had no idea what was wrong with me, and my therapists weren’t helping. Through those long, unhappy years, my family and I never would have guessed that I’d one day receive effective diagnosis and treatment; that I would successfully graduate from Swarthmore College, publish a book, and pursue opportunities that would eventually give me the chance to publish columns such as this, today. Did we all have to compromise some of our expectations and goals along the way? Absolutely. In college, I had to drop my plans for an honors degree and scraped by with the absolute minimum number of credits. I’ve had to leave part-time jobs because they couldn’t accommodate my disorder.

But my parents never gave up hope. At every step, they’ve been there to support me and encourage me to achieve whatever my "optimal outcome" might be. This is something they’ve taught me not only through their words but by their actions: When I was young and already presenting a bit of a challenge, my mother left a successful career to raise my sister and me—while doing volunteer work in our community to continue to put her MBA skills to use. And my father left a big law practice to work as a prosecutor for the government, helping to make the city safer, and enabling him to spend a bit more time with our family. My mom and dad have always taught me: don’t define success according to other people’s standards. Be kind to yourself and be kind to the people you love, and things will work out.

No, I'm not going to medical school, I'm not going to a fancy New York or Iowa MFA program. But I am living independently. I’ve enrolled in grad school. I have friends. And although these victories may be modest, I’ve built a life for myself, and not a day goes by when I’m not proud of that—and will forever be grateful to my mom and dad for their help.

My message to you is, never give up hope, and never stop encouraging your child to accomplish their own “optimal outcome.” It's not going to be easy, and you’ll likely have to make compromises—but with your support and love, I know your child can build a life, too.

Copyright, Fletcher Wortmann, 2013. Adapted from “Staying hopeful,” a column written for Children’s Mental Health Network, 8/9/2013.

You may be interested in my post, "Subtle Signs of OCD in a Young Child."