October 10 is the World Mental Health Day, a day that is designated to encouraging discussion of mental health issues.
As part of this event I am joining in with a blog party hosted by Psych Central which is aimed to unite bloggers across the world as they share their experiences with mental health issues.
There is a lot of prejudice and stigma surrounding mental health which makes it very difficult for people to discuss the subject openly and to seek the help they need. By sharing our stories it is hoped that we can help to reduce the taboo and raise awareness of mental health disorders and the treatments and therapies that can be used to help people overcome their difficulties.
My post is about my role as a parent of a child with mental health difficulties. Whilst I have personally experienced mental health issues in the form of depression, I want to dedicate this post to raising awareness that mental health difficulties also occur in children.
Our story starts in early 2009 when my then 10-year old son complained of tummy ache. As he was prone to occasional stomach upsets, I didn’t worry too much and just assumed that he had a stomach bug so I kept him at home so that he could rest and recover. Normally he would have returned to school after a couple of days but within a week or two of him being at home, I realised there was a problem.
Any mention of returning to school caused him to react in a tearful manner and he was also unable to leave the house without having a panic attack. As well as this, he wasn’t sleeping well and would spend his days either in bed or curled up on the settee watching cartoons on the television. I realised we needed help and I quickly arranged to see the special needs teacher at school who put in an immediate referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
Unfortunately it took many weeks before we saw a psychiatrist. The wait felt like an eternity but nevertheless we used that time to help our son as much as possible. As the slightest mention of school was such a massive source of stress for him, we decided not to talk about school and instead focused on creating a calm atmosphere at home, allowing him to watch his cartoons which proved to be therapeutic for him. We also concentrated on maintaining a routine of getting him up, dressed and washed and eating at normal times. I felt it important to hang on to some structure for him as without it I think my son would probably have stayed in bed all day.
Eventually we saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed agoraphobia and severe anxiety. In terms of therapies however nothing was offered to us except for medication. It was said to me that because my son is autistic that he would not benefit from talking therapies as he would not carry over what he learnt from one setting to another. Maybe theoretically this is so but I didn’t like my son’s disability being used as a barrier not to try something and I also hated the feeling that we were being pushed towards medication without any other therapies being offered.
It is not an easy decision to make, to medicate your child, particularly when anxiety medications have not been tested on children. As a result we had to spend time looking up the possible side affects (click here for helplines and information on anxiety medication) but in the end our son’s anxieties were so severe that we had to medicate. Becuase he is autistic, the anxieties had worsened his autistic behaviour and made it very difficult for us to interact with him properly. We needed a way to connect with him and the medication helped us to do that.
By slowly building up his medication under the supervision of the psychiatrist and being on the alert for possible side affects (which fortunately there weren’t any) we were able to lessen his anxiety sufficiently for us to re-engage with him. This was key. By being able to break down the ‘wall’ between him and us we could start to help him overcome his agoraphobia by introducing the idea of leaving the house. After mentioning this idea a few times, I then waited till he was as relaxed as possible before I encouraged him out of the house. It wasn’t easy. My son was still anxious but with lots of encouragement we managed to get him out of the front door and walk down the road. We then repeated this walk several times over a number of weeks until he felt comfortable enough to extend his walk to the corner shop. Eventually, with a lot of praise and rewards for every bit of progress he made, we helped him to get to the local park, then the library and then our town centre.
But it was painfully slow. Some weeks, he made progress, other weeks he regressed and for a while we were not hopeful that he would ever recover or return to education. But by accepting the setbacks and recognising the smallest of achievements we were able to keep going.
Eventually my son did make a good recovery so that in the autumn of 2010 he was able to start at his new school, a autism specialist school. However, his anxiety and autism remain constant challenges and even as I write this my son has suffered a relapse and is currently unable to cope with school. However though his anxiety has shot up, we have managed to avert full blown agoraphobia by accessing psychiatric help quickly, adjusting his medication and gradually exposing him to the things that he has become fearful of. And very slowly he is starting to feel better.