This is an important topic that we all need to pay attention to in our children and loved ones.
She was thirteen when she began to spiral and I did not recognize the signs. Her moods were all over the place and at first as a mom, I thought that it was just her being dramatic. She in fact is a teenage girl and learning to navigate the eighth grade, friends, and boys. Teens are prone to mood swings, correct? My daughter came home from school one afternoon and informed me that she wanted to kill herself. My whole world shattered. This once lovely beautiful child was now deciding that she wanted to destroy the life I carried for nine months. The baby that I rocked to sleep at night no longer wanted to live. It was shocking because she went to bed a normal child and woke up someone different.
According to NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 11% of teens have been diagnosed with a mood disorder, including my daughter. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for individuals from age 10-24 and 90% of the individuals that commit suicide had an underlying mental illness. As a parent, I wanted to believe that my daughter was not crying out for help, but was crying for attention. She was looking for attention from me because her brother and sister, who are both on the Autism Spectrum, were getting all the attention that she was not. She became a person I no longer recognized and I agonized over her waking up every morning and of what she would do if she did not go to sleep at night, to include sneaking out of the house. I would pray that she would go to sleep at night so I could rest my brain, but I never fully rested because I worried about her and her actions, and how they could affect her future.
The tipping point for us was when my daughter cut her arm. Cutting is a form of self harm and when I unwittingly scheduled an appointment for her with a pediatrician for a flair in her eczema, we found the cuts on her left arm, each had a meaning, and she ended up in a mental health emergency room for observation over night. I felt powerless and I felt as thought I had fallen down the rabbit hole. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t help my daughter. I couldn’t reach her and I felt as though I had failed as a parent. Autism I knew, mental health I did not.
She began to get treatment after she left the mental health emergency room and saw a counselor once a week. I missed the signs of what was going on with her the entire time. She was angry at her father about our divorce, she was looking for a father in any boy that would pay her some attention, depressed, and did not know how to express how she was feeling and the only way she could let me know she was suffering was by saying that she wanted to kill herself. In my suffering, instead of comforting her and trying to find a way to help her, I did what I knew to do, rationalize with her, which does not work. Anything would set her off and she was a ticking time bomb until she was put on the right medication cocktail.
I missed the signs, but I hope that my story can help your child before he or she gets too far out of your reach. The important thing is to recognize the signs:
- If your child feels very sad or withdrawn for more than 2 weeks (i.e. crying regularly, feeling fatigued, feeling unmotivated).
- Trying to harm or kill oneself or makes plans to do so.
- He or she is out of control, exhibits risk-taking behaviors that can cause harm to self or to others.
- If he or she is suddenly overwhelmed by fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort, or fast breathing.
- When he or she is not eating, throwing up or uses laxatives to lose weight and they have a significant loss or gain of weight.
- Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships.
- If they have repeated drug and alcohol use.
- Drastic changes in behavior, personality, or sleeping habits (as in wakes up early and acts agitated).
- Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that can lead to failure in school.
- Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends or going to classes.
Talk to your pediatrician, get a referral to a mental health professional, ensure that you work with the school about what you are seeing at home and keep the lines of communication open, and connect with other families that are experiencing the same struggle. Do not go it alone. Find a local NAMI support group if you do not personally know someone that is experiencing what you and your child are experiencing. I would also suggest talking to a counselor as well. While your child is getting help, you should to. I felt guilty that my daughter was behaving the way she was, but when I started talking to a counselor, I began to understand that her condition was not my fault. Being a teenager is difficult, adding mental illness into the mix makes it worse. Listen to your child, listen to your gut, and recognize the signs before it’s too late.