As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, I thought I was pretty understanding of mental illness. But seeing my teenager go through her own battle with depression brought on powerful realizations.
I now have a whole new appreciation for what it means to live with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. I’m sharing these realizations, because more of the world needs to hear them and believe them.
If you aren’t one of the 1 in 5 Americans who experiences mental illness in a given year, please make an effort to learn more and be kind to those who do. If you live with mental illness, you need to hear these too. I know I did.
A New Perspective on Mental Illness
Even though I knew many of these concepts in theory, they didn’t truly sink in until I witnessed someone who I loved dearly going through the fight of her life.
My teenager has struggled with depression for the past 3 years or so. Basically once puberty rolled in like a freight train, it brought a dark cloud of depression right along with it. Her psychiatrist informed us that this is pretty common in teen girls.
As a parent, it’s been so hard to watch her suffer—to not be able to fix everything despite giving it my all. Parenting a depressed teen is a whole other topic, but right now, I want to focus on how my depressed teen has unknowingly helped me be more accepting of myself and all those with mental illness.
I hope this difficult experience might inspire others. Here are the three big things I learned from my depressed teen:
1. People with mental illness are amazingly strong.
This was my #1 realization from being there for my depressed teen.
On the surface, she could look lazy or aloof. She often seemed annoyed or had a quick fuse. Her room was a mess and we practically had to drag her into the shower.
It can be so easy to pass judgment based on appearances. Yet when I learned more about just how much she was suffering inside, I quickly realized how every tiny action on her part took incredible effort.
Each day she chose to fight the demons in her mind, she was choosing to exist in spite of a deep pain that was invisible to others. She was exhausted. Her brain was betraying her at every turn. Yet she persisted.
It could seem like a tireless battle, one where her mind convinced her there was nothing but darkness ahead.
Still, she cared for others’ feelings above her own. In fact, she hid her illness so she wouldn’t worry us. She pushed through her daily routine even with an enormous weight of sadness pressing down on her.
When she opened up that things were really terrible in her mind, it took incredible bravery. She accepted help, and she tried so hard, despite every frustration (especially #3 below).
Now I have such a poignant reminder that sometimes the smallest of actions are actually a really big victory for someone with mental illness.
I worked to explain this to her teachers. When her depression was so severe, I asked them to help her celebrate the most minor successes. Even if she seems completely disengaged in class and doesn’t turn in any work, at least she’s there.
Explaining this to others helped it sink in for me. I needed them to understand the real situation, because mental illness attacks from beneath the surface.
Throughout her whole difficult experience, I was so legitimately impressed by how she soldiered on. I tried to tell her this all the time.
And it’s not just because I’m her mom. She gave me a new understanding of the amazing strength of those who deal with mental illness.
2. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
I don’t know how many times I spoke these words to my depressed teen. I believed it 100% when I told her this, because it’s absolutely true.
It seems so obvious.
I explained it in the same way to our other kids. Their sister was struggling. She wasn’t choosing to be more angry, withdrawn, and irritable. Her brain was sick just like our body gets the flu sometimes.
Depression, that sickness, was making her feel really bad, and she needed all of our love and understanding.
It’s easy to tell this to another person, but when you have a mental illness, getting yourself to believe it is a whole different story.
Doing everything to convince my depressed teen that she was not to blame helped shine a light on the guilt and shame I felt from my own depression and anxiety. If mental illness is out of our control, then these feelings were completely unfounded.
What kind of example was I setting by not talking about my own depression? By making excuses for being in a funk or wanting to lie in bed all day?
I hid it, because I was embarrassed. Because I felt weak. Like less of a mom. Not strong enough to fight my own demons. Guilty for not being whole and present for those who needed me. Silly for stressing over seemingly small things or nothing at all.
But hiding only perpetuates the stigma. I could see it clear as day now.
When my daughter was preparing to return to school after her hospital stay, she started a discussion with me about what the other kids would think and what she should tell them about being away for a while.
I told her it was her choice and her story. She had nothing to be embarrassed about, and if she wanted to share where she’d been, that was perfectly fine. If she preferred not to talk about it, that was OK too.
As I’ve described, she’s amazingly strong. She ended up sharing her experience openly with those who cared. She will speak about her depression or her hospital stay in regular conversation, and I never bat an eye.
Instead, I’m beaming with pride.
What an example she’s setting: it’s OK to be sick and get help, and this includes mental illness. Mental illness should not be a taboo topic, because its sufferers have done nothing wrong.
3. Treating mental illness takes time.
So many physical ailments have a clear treatment plan and expected recovery time. For a broken bone, virus, infection, etc., medical science can often give us a pretty good idea of what to expect. You get a cast for six to eight weeks or do a 10-day course of antibiotics, and in most cases, you’ll be good.
It’s not always so cut and dry with mental illness. Waiting to see if a treatment will help can be incredibly frustrating. Most available medications for depression take a month or more to show an effect.
Brain chemistry is complex and individualized, so it may take a trial and error of several different medications or combinations of medications to find what works. Strategies like therapy can also be helpful, but they aren’t a quick fix either.
While sorting this out, the person continues to suffer. Watching this play out with my daughter was very painful.
It was so easy to get frustrated waiting for signs of improvement—wanting so desperately for her to feel better. I learned that we had to try and focus on the long-term.
There are often steps forward followed by steps back. Even on the road to improvement, there may be tough times. The path of mental illness is not always predictable, and it can be easy to get discouraged.
Those living with mental illness need all kinds of support while they are working to get their condition managed. Be there for them. Be a source of positivity and hope when they have none. Saying things like “nothing is working” isn’t going to help.
Find a care team you trust, ask tons of questions, and have realistic expectations.
Most of all, know that things can get better in time. Don’t give up. You’ve got to keep trying. It’s a long road, but feeling better is worth it, and you can get there.
A More Complete Picture of Mental Illness
Did any of these lessons resonate with you?
Please share to spread awareness and understanding of mental illness. Love and hugs to anyone struggling.