I Realized We Couldn't Do It Alone––How We Helped Our Son With His Mental Health Struggles

by Nikkya Hargrove
Originally Published: 

Growing up, I was always reminded that whatever happened in our family, stayed in our family. I learned that conversations about emotions or family struggles were confined to the walls of our home, hung within the space of our living room or dining room like an expensive portrait. Our road to resolving a conflict was a family affair; surely the answers could be found within our family, right?

Because of this, I struggled for years with asking for help, thinking I could handle any situation that came my way on my own. I’ve gotten better for sure, and can say that part of my “getting better” journey can be credited to learning that we all need someone to talk to, preferably a therapist — a neutral party — to help.

Today, as a parent with a special needs son, I’m especially aware of the importance of having a community to support not only my child, but also us as parents.

It took me a while to get to this point, though, and everyone’s mental health journey is different. I quickly learned after my son’s diagnosis at eight years old that my journey and understanding of how my family would work through this were different than my own wife’s. I was in denial. I wanted to take care of this struggle, this new reality of ours within our family – as I was raised to do. Surely, the love we had for him would carry us through, right? I’d learned my entire childhood that any challenge that came to our family, we would get through together.

But before long, I learned that my son’s diagnosis of anxiety, ADHD, and Asperger’s (now ASD) was not something I could handle alone. I had a role to play as half of his parental unit and I felt like I was failing. I did not know, at least not right away, where I fit into this new normal of ours. We’d longed for answers for eight years — and now that I had them, loud and clear, what was I to do?

Like my wife and I, Kelli Richardson Lawson and her husband Keith struggled, like often parents of special needs kids do, to find the help and support for their son, to be there for one another, and to come to terms with what was going on in their family. Their son, then a 15-year-old, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2018. Shortly after his diagnosis, Kelli founded The SonRise Project — a safe space for parents of kids who are struggling with mental wellness.

According to the CDC, 7.1% or 4.4 million kids aged 3-17 years old are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. For kids with depression, 1.9 million kids in the same age bracket are diagnosed yearly with the disorder. For kids with ADHD, the numbers are even higher. In the United States, 6.1 million kids aged 2-17 years old are diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

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How do you know if your kid has a mental health disorder? Listen to them, observe them, and believe your parental instinct. Here are some things to look for in terms of symptoms, which are listed on The SonRise Project’s resource page:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s feelings, behavior, or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
  • Overuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance

It took a lot of late-night talks between my wife and me to get me to accept our son’s diagnoses. It took arguments, reading books, and data for me to even begin to understand how to help my son. Most of all, it took a community outside of my home; it took doctors and the stories and advice of people who’d been there for me to understand what kind of road my family would need to walk down to help our son.

For Kelli Richardson Lawson and her family, they had to figure it all out too. Like us, they were seemingly thrown into working through their son’s mental health issues as a family, and they traveled different paths until they figured out what they needed for them as parents and for their son. Their journey is one that I identify with.

Like the Lawsons, we realized we could not get through this alone and neither could our son. The SonRise Project provides parents with resources and support to help their kids’ mental health journeys. There is the SonRise Project’s podcast, which is empowering to listen to as a parent of a child with mental health issues. And then there is their website, which is packed full of resources ranging from how to identify mental health issues to managing addiction.

Parents are not often reminded that we are not alone — that there are others out there, just like us, trying to figure it out. For parents with kids who have mental health challenges, sure, there are Facebook groups, but there are also entire communities of people there to help, from special needs camps to therapists to other parents willing to share their family’s mental health journey.

What we must do is continue to talk, out loud and in the company of other parents. It is no longer a taboo subject, and we can only support one another if we are all open and honest about the challenges we face as parents and those that our kids face. We can (and should!) help one another, and that is just what Kelli and her family are doing for so many others. We are not alone, and neither are our kids.

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