When Your Child Has A Mental Illness

This is the post I never, ever thought I would have to write.

My youngest son, my sweet, loving, cuddly, animal loving, energetic, fun-loving ten-year-old boy, is mentally ill.

It shouldn’t feel so different.

After an autism diagnosis, two anxiety disorder diagnosis, an ADHD diagnosis, an autoimmune disease diagnosis, and a panic disorder diagnosis, you would think the words “bipolar disorder” would somehow feel less daunting for this momma, accustomed to the realities of pediatric medicine.

It shouldn’t feel so different.

But it does.

Mental health, quite simply, is not viewed the same as the other illnesses my children suffer from.

My oldest has a chronic autoimmune condition. When he was diagnosed, we had resources available. We had tons of research to review, and our choice of doctors to see.

Our health care professionals were noticeably concerned for him and for us. They recognized the gravity of his illness and, for lack of a better way to describe it, they conveyed sympathy, support and encouragement.

Bipolar disorder has not received the same response. Not even a little.

We have struggled every single day to find out as much as we can about my son’s mind.

We have struggled every single day to figure out how to help him.

And we have learned that no one really knows how to treat a young child with such significant issues. Moreover, there are very few resources for those who are working to figure it out.

Mental illness really is just that – an illness.

Please believe me when I say, bipolar disorder has taken over my son’s mind these past six months. It is like a really bad virus, not a failure somehow on his part.

He is not “behaviorally challenged” (if he was, we could successfully help him with behavior modification programs).

He is not a product of ineffective parenting (although I feel guilty all the time that I somehow caused this).

He is often not able to control his responses (although I want to believe he can).

He is ill.

It is not different, from a mother’s perspective.

But it is completely different in every other way.

For example, our insurance company covers autoimmune illnesses at 90%. Mood disorders are only covered at 60%.

There is only one viable treatment option within 100 miles of us,  for a child with a mood disorder. And our insurance doesn’t cover it.

One option – and if it isn’t a good fit for my son or our budget? There are no other options.

Another significant difference is the quiet, but very real shame associated with a child’s mental illness. I feel it in the other parents I meet at the medical center, waiting for their therapists, psychiatrists and doctors. We don’t make eye contact. We avoid conversation, not because we don’t want to connect (parenting a mentally ill child is devastatingly lonely), but because we are so accustomed to the stigma, the judgement, the shame. We look exhausted, all the time, and we are.

I see the difference in my son’s doctors and therapists. The really, really good ones – the ones that genuinely care – are overworked. They cannot possibly keep up. They look just as exhausted as the families they serve, and they are.

When Your Child Has A Mental Illness

It is overwhelming to consider the implications of all of this, not just for my family, but for all of us.

And so, as much as I want to scream in anger at the system, at the insurance company representative on the phone denying coverage, at the doctor who prescribed a medicine that has never been tested with children, at the only option being a mental hospital for stabilization, I instead want to say this –

Mental illness is an illness.

There is no difference.

The more we believe it, the more we will treat it as such.


I openly write about this because we need to talk about it.

My son is fearfully and wonderfully made. What message would it send to him that I write about all the other aspects of our life, but somehow keep this hidden?

More posts on Mental Illness –

7 thoughts on “When Your Child Has A Mental Illness

  1. Oh sweet Shawna, thank you for continuing to share you life with such a raw love and passion for your precious boys! Prayers for you as you continue to walk this lonely and barren road. Hugs and prayers and ‘strong coffee wishes’ for you on this Monday morning! XOXO

  2. Hugs to you, Shawna. I’m praying for you all. God has you and your family on a rocky, uphill path right now, and I’m trusting he’s taking you all to a high place. Praying for peace and great surrender/abandonment to his care throughout this journey. (I just read the comment above and see the same metaphor about the road you’re on. But it’s true!) blessings, Kristi

  3. We are just now figuring this out with our 36yo son. He needs help. We cannot give it to him. He is an adult, he has to get it himself and won’t. You are blessed to realize this now while he is still young.

  4. Wow, your story is our story. You mama heart for her mentally ill child is mine also…..thank you for your willingness to be so vulnerable in this so that we can know that we are not alone in this very lonely struggle.
    Your words are beautiful as you describe this anguish of watching your beautiful and fearfully made child go thorough this illness.

  5. If at all possible, don’t hospitalize your son. It became the last option for our daughter. In the hospital, she learned things we never would have taught her, she began to challenge our values, and she “picked up” other kids’ illnesses. Hospitalization became a bigger nightmare than her illness.

    1. I feel the same way, Lisa. It needs to be considered an absolute LAST resort. And the therapists and psychiatrists don’t always portray it that way.

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