Monday, October 3, 2016

What I Didn't Know About Mental Health Before Becoming a Special Needs Parent

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?
~ Psalm 13:2, NIV ~ 

"I should be dealing with this so much better than I am."

Has that self-deprecating thought ever crossed your mind? Everyone else seems to have it so much more together. They are less frazzled. Forgetfulness doesn't seem to rob others of clarity. Anxiety and depression haven't invaded their homes, or so it would appear. 

We seem to think that the struggle to "keep it together" is utterly unique to us and our families. That is completely faulty thinking. 

There was so much I didn't know about mental health before I became the mother of children with chronic illnesses and special needs. I was unnecessarily hard on myself out of ignorance.

Since that first shocking tsunami of diagnosis hit us over 16 years ago, the Holy Spirit has revealed a depth of wisdom regarding the relationship of special needs and mental health to me, including:
  • Most special needs, disabilities, and chronic illnesses go hand-in-hand with a mental illness. When a person is emotionally depleted or traumatized by the challenges of living with an atypical life, it is easy for anxiety and depression to move in. Executive functioning of the brain is also not what it should be with so many diagnoses. This makes mental health difficulties almost an inevitability for the majority of our children. I was caught off-guard when my son's treatment led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as generalized anxiety. As it turns out, this is fairly common.
  • Mental health treatment is usually a necessity for parents raising atypical children, especially at the time of diagnosis. An entirely new set of coping skills is required with a serious illness or disability. Professionals such as psychotherapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists can offer a fresh, effective set of tools as well as aid in improving perspective. This is necessary support and edification for parents like us as we try to create a new "normal" in our lives. God never meant for us to bear these trials on our own. I am so grateful for the outstanding professionals He put in my life to fortify me through the most difficult periods of adjustment.
  • There is no shame in taking medication. While some Christians are notorious for kicking the downtrodden by implying that medication equals a lack of faith, they couldn't be further from the Truth. (Yes, THE Truth!) It is irrefutable that there is a biological, chemical component to our mental well-being. Just as a person would never refuse insulin to treat diabetes, those struggling with mental illness are wise to consider the assistance of appropriate drugs. It is a huge blessing to have such treatment available to us at this time in history. Under the advice of our physicians, both my children and I have taken psychotropic drugs to assist us in addition to counseling. This has helped put a floor under us during emotional free-fall. 
  • We are upheld by faith. Mental illness cuts across every demographic. Christians are not exempt. And while faith does not eliminate our struggles with mental health, it does uphold us. God's unchanging faithfulness to us, His characteristic love never changes, even when our mood does. He is always rational, always sane, even in the midst of our insanity. Often times my faith is the one thin thread that keeps me hanging on when I am in the well of my deepest depression. When one of my children is harassed by relentless anxiety, I speak God's truth into them. He promises that His word will accomplish His purposes when I do. I find it as no surprise that there is scientific evidence that correlates faith and improved mental health. I don't know how I would make it without my Eternal Hope.
  • Families like ours often have great trouble with emotional boundaries. Regular readers know how I repeatedly endorse the outstanding Boundaries books by Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Their biblical mental health support is matchless! Families like ours can be prone to leaning too heavily on others, creating unhealthy codependency. At the same time, the unkind statements of others can create tension that is hard to appropriately push back against. Add to that confusion many unrealistic expectations from others when we are overloaded, and there is real difficulty in saying "no" to those expectations. These are all boundary issues. Both we and our children wrestle with the emotional and mental gymnastics of telling others what we need, what is appropriate for us, and not leaning too heavily on them with our increased load. We require assistance and encouragement in managing these dynamics. 
  • Those acting like they have it all together are usually the ones who are falling apart the most. The adage "Hurt people, hurt people" never fades in its truth. Insecurity breeds comparison, which leads to criticism. In addition, our mental health status can strike a bit too close to home for others. Fear and ignorance can cause neighbor and family member alike to respond to us with disdain. Yet, these are usually the individuals who are in the worst place possible when it comes to mental health. Issues cannot be dealt with unless we admit to them. I continually need to remind myself that those who inspire a feeling of inadequacy likely need my prayers the most.
These are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom God has imparted to me over my years of parenting children with a variety of diagnoses. Although I had no idea that challenges with mental well-being would be involved in our journey, it certainly seems far less scary now. While our family may face mental health issues, those mental health issues don't have to have us! Our Savior is BIGGER, and He gives us the weapons we need for the battle.

PRAY: Lord, take our thoughts captive and make them obedient to You. When we wrestle with mood disorders or other mental health challenges, help us to persevere by clinging to You. Grant us rest in Your assurance that NOTHING can separate us from Your love.


  1. God uses you to be a Good Samaritan to us wounded folks on the side of the road.

  2. Yes, yes, yes!!! I agree with Denie. You have said VOLUMES in this one post. It's what I feel on my heart daily. <3