We all have the potential to go crazy
After spending a week in a child and adolescent psychiatry clinic one thing became clear to me:
We all have the potential to go crazy.
It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t like I had seen in the movies. Seeing the young people who came and hearing their stories, it made sense why they were there. In most cases, it wasn’t one thing that led them to be there. It was a cumulation of many events and experiences. I found myself wondering, what would they be like if one or more of those experiences hadn’t happened? What if they would have had someone they trusted and could talk to? What if they had been supported earlier on? What if they felt cared for and worthy of good things?
One after the other, I saw distressed, disconnected and desperate young people. Most were lacking connection to family or friends. Some because they had very difficult family situations: parents who had many burdens to carry and mental health issues themselves. Or for some other reason they weren’t able to be present and really connect with their child or to set healthy boundaries for their kids. Some had been uprooted and had no anchor to stay rooted to - not a place, not a person, not even an animal. Some didn’t know how to deal with failure or rejection and just fell apart. All of them lacked support and healthy coping mechanisms for the challenges that life brings. All of them were desperate to belong, to be loved and to have a sense of meaning or direction in their lives.
Many of them had experienced some kind of trauma - being hit, ignored, forgotten or were living with a chronic illness. Every single one of them was struggling with unpleasant emotions. None of them had healthy ways to navigate their big feelings. So they turned to hurting themselves physically (physical pain masking the emotional pain), taking drugs or drinking, immersing themselves into video games… all of which dragged them into a darker place.
Try as I might to find the golden nugget that would explain it all, there was no one reason for any of them to be there. It’s much more complex than that. What did get very clear to me is that although we humans are extremely resilient and can bounce back from many things, we are also very vulnerable. It’s not just some people who are born a certain way. We are incredibly influenced by the experiences we have and many of those are out of our control. Many are also not lucky to have a support system. Really, we all have the potential to develop mental health issues. None of us is above that.
What also became clear to me this week is that a diagnosis of a mental illness is not doomsday. It’s just like diagnosing a flu. Once we know what we are dealing with, we can support it’s healing. And most patients also have really good chances of recovering and getting back to normal. The earlier they are helped the better their chances of a normal life.
At the same time, so many of the cases would have been preventable. For me, this experience reinforced my sense of purpose in my work. Working with young people, parents and teachers to understand emotions, know what to do with them and to develop their life skills. For me there is nothing more important. As I jokingly said to the head of the clinic: “My goal is to get you out of a job.”
We have to take care of our mental health. It’s not to be taken for granted. Here are some key pointers for you, dear parents:
Don’t over-protect your child. They need to experience failure, rejection, hurt as they grow up so they can learn how to interpret and respond to these. Be there for them, help them put the experiences into perspective, help them see how they can respond and support them as they try out different ways. But let them do it. Equip them with what they need, create support structures, and then let them fly. That’s how they will experience that they can handle these life experiences. Not if you do it for them. Not if you assume they should know how.
Really connect with them. This is about quality time together. It means being present, showing genuine interest in their inner and outer worlds and creating the space for them to express themselves. It’s not about quantity of time, it’s about quality. Also, we cannot expect a child to pour their hearts out to us on demand. We need to share their joys and regularly do fun things that you both enjoy together to build the bond of love. If you can’t, for whatever reason, then make sure they have another healthy adult they connect to and trust.
Take care of yourself - kids need healthy parents. I often remind parents of this as they rush about and spread themselves thin. This is the principle of the oxygen mask. Cover your nose and mouth before helping others. If you don’t, you might not be able to help them. Make sure you eliminate any stresses you can, get the support you need and that you are loving and caring towards yourself too. Kids need healthy parents, so as responsible as you are for their well-being, you are also responsible for your own. And they are connected.
Don’t be afraid to get help for your child if you notice they are struggling. We all need help sometimes. There will be times when you can help your child and that’s great. There will be times where they might need other support than what you can give them. In those cases, the best way to help them is to support them in finding the help they need. That’s not a failure or a weakness. On the contrary, that’s strength - knowing your limitations and being humble enough to go beyond even when it’s scary.
Just to be clear here… the mental health issues I saw this week are not all a result of the parents. What I’m merely highlighting here is that as parents or people working with children, we have a great privilege (and responsibility) to do all that we can to support children and teens. And the most powerful things are quite simple to do if we are aware of how impactful they can be.