One night a few years ago, we were at our local park watching our boys’ baseball games. It was a divide-and-conquer night: one parent and grandparent at the big kid game, the others at the t-ball field.
When we arrived, the skies were clear, but before long dark clouds rolled in. What happened next was straight out of the movie, “Twister.” The winds picked up, taking the sand from the fields with it. Moments later, everyone was running to their vehicles. Kids and elderly grandparents struggled to keep up and families like ours were desperately trying to reach family members across the park.
It was one of the scarier moments of our lives, and luckily, we made it home unharmed. Hunkered in the basement that evening, I realized our family had no emergency disaster plan in place. No go bags, meet-up location, emergency supplies, or code words if we were separated. I never taught my boys first aid or CPR. We would be in real trouble in a worse emergency.
Over the next few months, we made plans, practiced, and invested in some essentials. We have a way to go, but our family is a lot better off than we were that day.
Today we face a different type of storm. This is not one that downs trees and buildings, but it is one that can takedown kids and families. America’s pediatricians have declared what parents have known for some time: our children’s mental health is in crisis. It is a national emergency.
This storm hit our family last year. Soon after Halloween, our son suddenly developed full-blown OCD symptoms (sharing with his permission.) The next few months were a blur of trying to navigate pandemic parenting, while also getting him the care he needed. Due to Covid, everything had to be done remotely.
My husband and I were fortunate to have reliable internet, digital devices, resourceful friends, and social work backgrounds. Even with those things in place, it was still hard. We needed to find a therapist skilled at dealing with OCD and children. The best options were in the nearest city, which is physically close but across state lines. Insurance wouldn’t cover the costs. I stayed up late at night trying to understand what was happening to my child and figuring out what to do next. I left messages with therapists and was put on waiting lists. Everyone seemed maxed out. Finally, someone called us back. She didn’t take our insurance, but she knew someone in our state who might.
At the same time, we decided to look for a child psychiatrist. Just in case. I called every place I could, including the local Children’s Hospital. Everyone was booked for a year or more. With exception to the hospital, all were private pay. The hospital would take our insurance, but they wouldn’t see our kid. They were only seeing children for autism evaluations, or those coming through the emergency room.
At that moment, our child was in crisis, and we were forced to navigate without forethought or a plan, during what was already a complicated time. This is the storm every parent in America must be ready for.
Before pediatricians declared an emergency, I knew our country’s children were in trouble. Through my work, I connect with educators, counselors, coaches, and youth workers from across the country. They have told me our children are stressed, anxious, sad, worried, and exhausted. Most name mental health as their number one concern.
This year, my family learned that no child is immune from mental health issues. You owe it to your kids and yourself to be ready if this storm hits your home. To get started, here are five ways you can plan for and respond to your child’s mental health needs:
Learn Mental Health First-Aid
This is a thing! My friend Katie got certified in Mental Health First Aid and now offers classes to other parents in town. Just like we learn to “stop, drop, and roll” or apply pressure to a cut that’s bleeding, we can learn to respond to a child who is struggling, and develop the skills to safely support them in a mental health crisis.
Have Emergency Resources on Hand
Remember the first time you had a babysitter come over? If you were like me, you wrote down all the numbers they might need. This included neighbors, doctors, and poison control. The sitter also learned our son’s asthma action plan and how to work a nebulizer. We need a similar list of mental health resources. This is easier to make when you are not in crisis. Give yourself to understand what your insurance covers, which providers are close by and good fits, and where to go or what to do if an emergency happens.
Have a Plan You Work on With Your Kids
Normalize conversations about mental health with your children, by talking about the importance of taking care of bodies and brains. Learn your family’s mental health history and consider talking about your own struggles. Teach your children the signs and symptoms that could mean trouble, and what to do if they show up. If you stay positive, loving, and age- and stage-appropriate, your kids will end up with language and lookouts that can help them now and in the future.
Work with Other Adults Who Love Your Child
Our son has deeply benefited from a team of people who have his back and know what he’s struggling with. His pediatrician, therapist, teacher, extended family, and a few close friends, have been crucially important to his health and well-being this past year. There’s no way we could have matched the quality of support and care he has gotten on our own. Invite others into the journey with you and ask for help along the way.
Know When and How to Advocate for Your Child
Navigating and negotiating mental health issues is tricky, taxing, and time-consuming. You might face geographic or financial limitations, or feel like you’re making progress, only to hit a wall. There will be people who question you or your child, and professionals who might be a bad fit for your family. You will also run into people who lack awareness or misunderstand or minimize what’s going on. Remember, you are your child’s best advocate. Educate yourself on the issues your child is facing (or at risk of facing). Be persistent, take good notes, maintain records, and remember to keep breathing.
Every generation of kids have struggled with mental health issues. This generation just seems to be struggling more. This could be because we’re more tuned in, or because of the confluence of life changes and challenges surrounding them. Likely both. Regardless, our children need to know they’re not weathering this emergency alone. There are steps we can take, alone and with them, to be prepared and educated, ready for the storm, no matter what happens.
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