Youth mental health – A parent’s perspective

In the first of a two-part series on youth mental health, parents discuss their experiences of seeking support for their children with mental health issues.

“It is an absolute minefield. It does take its toll on the entire family life.”

Carolann Copland, a mother living in south Dublin describes the process of navigating mental health services for her children as daunting, frustrating and heartbreaking.

The former primary school teacher first sought help over 15 years ago for her then 14-year-old daughter. Since then, she has been immersed in the “challenging” process of seeking professional help for two of her daughters who suffer mental health issues, initially through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and then through adult mental health services.

Her daughters are now in their late teens and 20s.

“For certain things it is going to take months, sometimes years”

She believes that the first obstacle for a parent is distinguishing normal adolescent behavior from a mental health illness.

“Everyone wants to think their child is going through a situational problem, that we can push through this and come out the other end and it’s going to be ok,” she said. “So, to know the difference between one and the other is difficult as a parent.”

She questioned if it was going to “chase” her daughters “all their lives” or if it was something happening just for now because of school or peers.

Carolann Copland says for some mental health supports can take months or years to access

Carolann also reflects on her experience of accessing mental health supports for her teenage daughters as “an absolute minefield.”

“At first you don’t realize how long it is going to take, and then after a while you realize you have to put everything in motion and let it do its job eventually, but it is all going to take time,” she said .

“For certain things it is going to take months, sometimes years.”

When Carolann and her husband approached CAMHS for a second time with their younger daughter ten years after they had first accessed it for their older child, they thought they had “sussed” the system.

“But my husband and I were shocked,” she said. “Maybe there is a triage in place but when you are trying to access help there doesn’t feel like there is.”

Carolann’s experience is similar to many other parents who were interviewed for a large-scale study on their perspectives of supporting teenage children with mental health problems. The research carried out at UCD School of Psychology was led by Dr. DarĂ¡ine Murphy.

Dr DarĂ¡ine Murphy of UCD says parents want a hub that they can go to for clear reliable information

Through interviews and surveys, she explored the overwhelming emotions parents face and the toll the entire process takes on them and family life.

“Very often it was a defining event that made parents realize we need to go and seek help,” explains Dr. Murphy.

“It can be really challenging at this point because it is the realization that this is beyond them as a parent, and they need to seek external help elsewhere.”

She said parents disclosed an abundance of emotions.

“I talked to one mother whose son was self-harming and had suicidal ideation, and she was told three months she had to wait to get help, waiting on her own with her son not knowing how to support him”

“Guilt, that they didn’t realize their child was in distress from the start, and they blame themselves and they feel maybe they were responsible for what their child was going through,” she said.

Many parents also expressed “huge” amounts of anxiety.

“They are so worried they could say something that could potentially make the situation much more difficult,” she said.

A lack of knowledge was raised as another obstacle.

“Parents often felt they were thrown in the deep and didn’t have the knowledge of how to support their adolescent and where to go for help,” she said. This often led to “googling information” and “the information isn’t often applicable to their situation.”

While most parents said their GP was their first port of call, navigating the process from there was often not straightforward, whether the option was to go private, choose charity-led support, or await an appointment with CAMHS.

Long waiting lists, which are known to be a consistent problem in CAMHS, were widely criticized by parents. Dr. Murphy outlines how the wait was particularly stressful in some cases.

“I talked to one mother whose son was self-harming and had suicidal ideation, and she was told three months she had to wait to get help, waiting on her own with her son not knowing how to support him,” she recalls.

Another parent shared her overwhelming worry of “trying to keep her daughter alive” while she awaited an appointment.

This study also raised the issue of stigma around mental health. A significant number of parents chose to keep quiet about their child’s problems among friends and extended family members, particularly fathers.

“Many of the parents I spoke to, it was the first time they had ever spoken to anyone about what their adolescent was going through,” explained Dr. Murphy.

“They were fearful and didn’t want other people knowing as a parent they didn’t want to be judged but then also didn’t want their child to be treated differently because of what they have been through,” she said.

This is one of the main reasons Carolann has chosen to speak publicly about her family’s situation. She recalls the time when one of her daughters was in the fifth year at school, and she was being cared for in St. Pat’s Children’s Hospital for three months.

“Once they get to services, they need that family peer support”

“I found out much later that so many people I knew were in a similar position that year or the year after, certainly when Covid-19 hit,” she said. “People were not talking enough to each other because it is such a taboo subject, and it really is. I don’t think parents are supporting each other enough or families supporting each other enough.”

Parents said they participated in this research on their personal experiences because they feel “strongly” something needs to change. Dr. Murphy said the majority described how seeking support for their teenager was like “navigating a labyrinth”, often feeling on their own on this journey.

“They want a hub that they can go to for clear reliable information to tell them how to manage their adolescent, what are the right things to say and do,” said Dr. Murphy.

Parents are also vocal about the need for family support to be offered from those who have already been through the process.

“Once they get to services, they need that family peer support,” she remarked. She refers to examples abroad such as Australia where they have family peer support workers in place, so the family benefits from the experience of being guided through services and to advocate for them.

Parents like Carolann also want to see a better transition of services for children moving from CAMHS to adult mental health services. She had assumed it would have been a “blended” access.

“I was very shocked with my eldest,” she said, “I thought it was that I didn’t know the system and I didn’t know who to approach or who to speak to. And ten years later when my younger daughter was going through CAMHS and into the adult system, I was completely wrong, it was exactly the same.”

She believes there is a need to “join the dots” in the different departments, not just from childhood to adulthood but throughout all the different departments.

“People come together to work and help children and young adults,” she remarked.


Helplines:

Aware | aware.ie | 1800 80 48 48 | [email protected]
Jigsaw | jigsaw.ie | 01 472 7010 | [email protected]


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