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How to Support a Family During a Pediatric Mental Health Crisis

In light of the recent Ricki Lake Show putting focus on pediatric mental illness and community member and contributor Chris Hickey and her son Tim, we’re re-running this post about helping a family during a mental health crisis. This originally ran Auguest 29, 2012. Thank you Chrisa and Tim for sharing your family’s story. We’re so grateful.

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When a friend contacted me about a child in her daughter’s class who was admitted into a psychiatric hospital for attempted suicide I was grateful. She’d wanted to know how to support the family, deal with the rumors swirling and how to communicate with her child about her classmate.

Like I said, I was grateful. I was grateful for the chance to share what we’ve learned. I was thinking “wouldn’t it have been great if all parents had done that in my son’s class when he was admitted.” Instead, I was asked not to blog about the situation, because the school was, apparently, getting push back (about my son attending the school or being in that class) from some parents in my son’s class. I took a few days off of the blog and came back with more resolve to tell our story – our way – as my friend Lori so lovingly (forcefully) told me to do in an email that horrendous week.

It is not complicated, this thing we call support. It’s the same support we need through medical crisis but because of the stigma surrounding mental health, families are often left feeling alone and isolated.

  • Talk to Us. One thing that mental health crisis is, is isolating. We need for people to not be afraid to talk to us about mental health issues. Even if you don’t know what to say, call. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking about you.” 
  • Talk Sensitively with Your Kids. We need you to be sensitive about what you say to your kids about our kids. Kids don’t start off hateful towards  kids with differences, a lot of times, they have help. It’d be great if you could just tell your kids everyone is different and we all have issues, and our families are doing the best we can to help our kids.
  • Have Your Kids Show Support. It’d be great if your kid could write a note to my kid. When my son was out he got two notes and they were from his best friend Laura.
  • Offer Help. We need playdates and/or babysitting for our other kids. They need rides to and from school and activities. If our kids share an activity, it’s easy.
  • Food. Not much because we barely want to eat anyway, but you’d be surprised the amount of comfort that comes from a basket of homemade muffins left at the door.
  • Surprise us with Notes. We need notes and cards and emails of support.
  • Good Wishes or Prayers. Some of us need prayers, all of us need good thoughts and wishes. Then tell us by email, text or phone calls.
  • Stop the Gossip. We need for you not to gossip about our kids. If you have a question, call us. Most parents I know who have dealt with trauma like this will answer your questions and welcome the chance to talk about it with someone offering compassion and understanding.
  • Reach Out Through Channels. If you want to do something and are unsure how to support the family because you are not close, go through the school. Ask the teacher, administrator. Legally, they can’t tell you anything, but you can request they send a message to the family from you.

It’s really about common sense. How would you treat a family who has a child out for a kidney transplant? Or out for a extended time for a chronic illness? If you’d send emails and bring food and set up a schedule to babysit, then do it for this crisis as well.

You’d be surprised at the lack of compassion for a family who simply has a child who suffers from a mental illness resulting in an emotional breakdown. In our case, you’d be surprised about the lack of compassion for our family when our son wanted to kill himself.

Questions about how to support a family with a mental health crisis? Ask me. There is no stupid question if you are coming to it from a loving, compassionate place.

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