How Do You Know if Your Child Has a Mental Illness?

Mental Illness

It has been almost 10 years since my daughter, Linea, was diagnosed with a mental illness. Since those initial and terrifying first years, we have made our story public through our book, Perfect Chaos, A Daughter’s Journey with Bipolar, A Mother’s Struggle to Save Her. We have spoken to audiences all over the country and to countless people about their own battles with mental illness. It has been quite a journey, as so many families know.

A question that is always asked of us is, “How did you know it was something really serious and not just teen-age angst?” While Linea was in the first throes of the worst of the symptoms, I was teaching a class on mental health disorders to college graduate students, students who would soon be school psychologists, school counselors and special educators. The question I ask myself, is, “How did I not know?” Why was the eventual diagnosis such a shock to me?

When an illness is beginning its invasion, it can enter quietly, mysteriously, or with great fanfare. Looking back, I can now see it coming during those early years. But at the time, we never suspected a severe mental illness was on its way, an illness that was poised for destruction.

In that time and place, I think we convinced ourselves that it (this depression, soon to be diagnosed as bipolar) was due to stress from school, worries about her future, fears for a struggling friend, all wrapped up in her drive to do and be her best. In hindsight, there were indicators of what was to come; but at the time, these were merely hazy suggestions, whiffs of a more serious illness lurking.

After many discussions of a diagnosis and a major suicidal crisis, we met again with Linea’s psychiatrist. Linea sat there without speaking and I finally asked him, “How will we know if it is bipolar disorder?” He said, “We will have to wait and see.” I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart hurt as we left his office.

Wait for what? It felt frightening and overwhelming. It was all I could do to keep from lying down on the floor and weeping. But I didn’t, and together we all “waited.” Eventually the pieces came together, the diagnosis aligned with her symptoms, and the treatment began to work. There was hope and recovery and stability.

We did many things right as we worked our way through this frightening maze. We were present to her and with her, we listened, we waited and we trusted her to ask for help when she could. When she couldn’t, we made decisions for her.

There is one thing I would have changed, if I could. I kept looking for reasons for her symptoms outside of her own ill brain. Maybe if she lightened her schedule. Maybe if she got more rest. Maybe if she meditated or did yoga. Maybe if I took her shopping and had a mom and daughter weekend.

In retrospect, the message I was giving a girl who already struggled with perfectionism was, “If you try harder you can fix this.” I needed to let her know that just like diabetes, this is a physical illness that one can’t just “fix” without medical interventions. Yes, rest and reduced stress can certainly help, as it does with other illnesses, but these strategies alone won’t make it go away.

Just like we know the symptoms for a cold versus strep throat, we parents need to know the symptoms for the mental illnesses most likely to strike our children and adolescents. Here are symptoms that I didn’t recognize as clinical depression, but rather determined were Linea’s trials as a teenager. I admit it. I missed it. Any one of these alone might not be a warning sign, but together, they are a call to get professional help:

  • Not going out with friends on weekends
  • Tears, tears and more tears
  • Extremely self-critical and unable to let loose of this criticism
  • No interest in playing the piano. (Linea was a musician and typically played the piano for more than an hour a day.)
  • Periods of extreme energy when she was in a musical, show choir, getting all A’s and getting by with little sleep. (I thought she was actually doing better! Looking back – hypo-mania!)
  • Panic attacks (This happened a couple of times, including once in the middle of the night. I thought she was extremely stressed about deciding where to go to college)
  • To be honest, I would give anything for my daughter not to have this diagnosis. It has been painful, to say the least.

    But I also know that it has changed us all in many incredibly positive ways. She is an amazing young woman, and every day I am so very grateful for her life. At 28, she is in graduate school, working, living independently, and in a positive and loving relationship. She works as an advocate to assure that people with mental illnesses are not alone, and receive the best treatment possible. While the illness does not define her, it has certainly been a part of shaping her into the extraordinary adult she is today.

    I wish you peace in your own journeys, and the confidence to trust yourselves, trust your instincts, trust your child … and reach out for help when you’re concerned for your child’s welfare.

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