By Denise Mueller
Sending a child off to college is not easy for any parent. But when your child has mental illness, the process of letting go is even more difficult. The concerns I have as a parent are not unique; they are simply amplified by my daughter’s diagnoses. The stakes, given my family’s history, feel higher.
While many families were celebrating Christmas in 2020, I was admitting Sheridan to the hospital because she was afraid she was going to harm herself. A year and a half later, Sheridan is getting ready to start her senior year of high school with her sights set on college. As she meets with her counselor to discuss the options, I am filled with a variety of emotions, namely excitement, pride and fear. A lot of fear.
College students already grapple with a variety of challenges during their first year, and those with a history of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder (or all three), like Sheridan, need extra support and a plan. For parents like me, this transition is not just about buying a cute duvet for the dorm.
There are a significant number of parents in my position, given that approximately 41% of college students reported symptoms of depression last year and roughly 31% of all college students had already received an anxiety disorder diagnosis at some point in their lives. Additionally, 90% of counseling centers report an increased demand for mental health services. Clearly, my daughter is not alone.
By talking about these issues with each other, and our children, we can help. I believe that when we discuss things, regardless of the situation, we build bridges that lead to solutions.
It can be hard to initiate a conversation about mental health with a teenager — sometimes Sheridan doesn’t want to talk. At the same time, I am overwhelmed with fears that I want and need to talk about. I struggle with knowing when, how much and who to speak to. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes, I’m just not sure.
The one time I got it right was last Christmas, which was the one-year anniversary of Sheridan being admitted to the hospital. Preemptively, I started talking to my kids. It was fruitful. My older daughter realized she had some triggers around Christmas and talked to her counselor about it. My other daughter did the same.
As a family, we decided to keep the holiday as simple as possible. This wasn’t necessarily easy. I had to consciously work at saying no to invitations. We took it day by day, based on how we were feeling, and
got through it. I didn’t talk about it non-stop. Rather, I created the space where they could talk to me and let them know I was there for them. In doing so, we avoided additional triggers and stress.
I’m also finding it helpful to respond rather than react — something that is easier said than done. “I think I want to go to a university in a city,” Sheridan said one morning.
“ABSOLUTELY NOT!” shouted the voice in my head. The other voice said, “take a deep breath, Denise,” and “let’s get support.” I hired a college counselor and coach to help her think through the options.
Yet, my fears remain.
Recently, I was talking to a friend and realized that I could consult with Sheridan’s counselor about my fears and enlist her support. This reminded me that talking to trusted friends and family members often spark ideas I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. This is helpful because, in the absence of other perspectives, my mind (like many parents’) just makes lists of what could go wrong: Who will be there if she gets lost, loses her keys or something else goes wrong? What do I need to have in place to protect and support her? What do I need to do so I can be happy for her instead of worrying about her every second of the day?
These may sound like normal maternal concerns, but when it comes to a child with mental illness, lost keys can become a crisis. Overwhelm can become life-threatening. This is not a fear; it’s a fact.
I’d love to tell you that I have it all figured out. I’d love to leave you with a few solid takeaways, but this is what I know: it’s hard. I struggle with this every day. There is a lot I need to do to support Sheridan during this transition. There is a lot I need to do to support myself through this transition. And even though I know that I cannot fix Sheridan’s mental health challenges, I know that when I am resourced, I can show up as the parent I want to be and need to be. She deserves nothing less.
Denise Mueller is senior executive in the biotech field. She is a mother of three beautiful daughters. Denise’s journey with mental health began as an adult when her mother became ill. Today, it’s a journey she shares with her daughter. Together, they continue to support each other to grow, learn and heal.
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