An Open Letter to the Parents of a Kid Who MIGHT Have a Mental Illness

suicide teenDear Parent of a kid who might have a mental illness,

Yeah, I know, I’ve heard your excuses a million times: “It might just be a phase that s/he’ll grow out of…no one wants to slap a diagnosis on their child…no school counselor is going to tell me how to parent my kid…no shrink is going to prescribe some pill my kid pops so s/he’s magically calm and focused.” And I know that, back in our day, the kids who took Ritalin probably just needed better parenting and firmer discipline…I know that, when you were a teenager, you went through plenty of times when you were “depressed,” and you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps…pumped some iron, got a new boyfriend who was a great kisser, made the basketball team, or just listened to some great music, and voila! All better in a week or two…your kid should do the same. I know, I know.

Maybe you’re right, Parent. Maybe your kid needs to get his/her act together the good old fashioned way. That’s entirely possible. But bear with me while I pose a simple question from two different angles. Then I’ll get off my high horse.

First question: What’s the worst that can happen if you get your maybe-not-mentally-ill child some professional help?

I know you’re worried about the horror stories you’ve heard regarding antidepressants. I’ve lived some of them first-hand. But they’ve also saved my life. The truth is, when used properly, anti-depressants are very, very safe. If you just go slow and talk to your kid about how s/he’s feeling, you’ll be just fine. And, people don’t get addicted to anti-depressants, so there’s nothing to worry about there. Sure, there are some psychiatric meds that can be addictive and dangerous, but you’re a lot safer getting your kid started while they’re still under your watchful eye than if they start taking some of the more dangerous drugs when they’re out on their own.

What you’re probably more worried about is the stigma and the label of having a kid who sees a shrink. I suppose your kid could develop some weirdo reputation. Worse yet, you might get labeled the parent who couldn’t help his own kid get his shit together. Forgive me for being slightly confrontational here, but…well…your kid may well already have a weirdo reputation. And you may already be seen as the parent who could stand to pay a bit more attention to what’s happening under your nose. Truly, having a kid who is a medicated and treated weirdo is highly preferable to having an unmedicated/untreated weirdo on your hands. And as for your reputation, well, you’re better than that. Living vicariously through one’s kids is never a good look. Be the parent who puts his kid above his reputation.

Second question: What’s the worst that can happen if you DON’T get your maybe-not-mentally-ill child some professional help. I’m tempted to scare the hell out of you by referencing every school shooting ever, but I’ll skip the scare tactics…Actually, no I won’t. Google Dylan Klebold’s mom. She’s the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold. This brave lady has recently begun to speak openly about the situation, and her main message is the exact same as every parent of every kid who’s ever pulled a trigger, taken too many drugs, or acted out in some overly dramatic way: she wishes she had said something other than, “I’m sure he’ll be fine; it’s just a phase.” You, Parent, still have an opportunity to, at the very least, always be able to say, “I did everything for my child.”

Much more likely than a scenario like the ones above is that your child will end up like countless students of mine, and like me: feeling very lonely and very confused and very scared. They’ll spend years, even decades, wondering why they are different from others, thinking they might need to see a doctor but scared of disappointing you, scared of telling their friends because they already feel enough like a weirdo or a psycho. They’ll probably, like most of us with a mental illness, try to self-medicate. It’ll probably be drugs or alcohol. Or it could be something “healthier” like work or fitness. Maybe it will be sex. It’ll be something. It’s called a coping mechanism, and all coping mechanisms do the trick, at least in the short term. But we all know that these coping mechanisms don’t work forever. Some people get on a slippery slope of coping mechanisms and end up face down and unresponsive in the ditch at the end of the slide. Some can be revived; some can’t. If your kid is one of the lucky ones who survives the slide, they’ll land in a psychiatrist’s office, scared to death but grateful to still have a fighting chance at a life worth living. If you wait…If you don’t get your child some help now,  s/he may well survive, but by the time they land in that shrink’s office, the scars they’ll bear will be permanently disfiguring.

The greatest news, here at the end of this preachy letter, is that you hold the power of God, at least for now, in your hands when it comes to your children. You get to say what they’re allowed to try in terms of getting help. The one absolute certainty is that they will try SOMETHING. It might be pot or beer or meth. Or it might be Prozac or Lithium or Vyvanse. I can’t guarantee you that the latter three will help your child. But I can guarantee you than the former three won’t. So, please, I beg you, be a hero who is humble enough to set aside your fears of a ruined reputation so your child can at least have a chance at his/her healthiest possible life.

High horse dismounted,



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2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Parents of a Kid Who MIGHT Have a Mental Illness

  1. I can feel your passion in this article. I agree with your position. Children need an advocate. Be that parent. If you have any suspicion that something is wrong, take them to their doctor. Let them speak privately to a professional. Help them where they can not help themselves. We are all as different inside our heads as we are on the outside. Thank you Tim.

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