Struggles: Parenting A Youth with Mental Health Challenges

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

I am the parent of a child that suffers from a debilitating mental health illness.

I share this fact not to seek empathy, concern, or even pity. I share this because the acknowledgement is unburdening; somewhat freeing. I share this in the hopes that talking about it helps reduce the stigma that I have felt for nearly fourteen months as a parent of a child with these types of challenges. I wish to help lessen the immense societal stigma that individuals, in particular, our youth bump up against.

While our province and its public health care system continues to improve its supports and resources for young people with mental health challenges, the stigmatization that exists among much of the public is real. As a society, we still refuse to continue to appreciate the insidious nature of the ‘invisible’ illness; a malady unseen, not physical; an affliction which quite often eludes a precise or exacting explanation.

When a loved one suffers from a mental health challenge its impact on loved ones is natural and palpable. When that loved one is your own child the impact is inescapable. The day-to-day worry that an escalation or triggering event might cause is always top of mind. When these events happen (and they do) getting back to a sense of normalcy is always a delicate practice. The reset button is continually deployed. And of course, when things appear to be going well (and without incident), waves of gratitude for the peace and calm are never far away. And, if I am honest, is the ever present foreboding of the next episode.

You are not your illness. You have an individual story to tell. You have a name, a history, a personality. Staying yourself is part of the battle.

Julian Seifter

What I have learned as a parent with a child suffering from mental health illness is the importance of challenging the prevalent sense of helplessness. In the end, if the old sixteen year old denies offers of help, it is very difficult to have any sort of consistent medical support on hand. That is not to say that I am not extremely grateful for the numerous hospital staff, doctors, nurses, and other health care specialists that have helped us along the way. I recognize a similar helplessness in their eyes when our child is in crisis: we do the best we can with the best of intentions and hope that things get better. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.

With respect to mental health support, there is a general acknowledgement that we are often not doing enough for our children and youth. Ultimately, we attempt to support our parents as much as possible with an unending litany of books, websites, advice blogs, social workers, counsellors, etc. In the end, it is up to the individual to advocate for the help they need; to be committed to that support; to keep return back to the support; to make their soul whole again. This intention is really what it comes down to.

I have also yielded to what may be an inevitability: this may be a long-term affliction for our child to work through. Two steps forward, one step back. Our immediate goal is to provide them with the opportunity to develop resilience, self-care, and most importantly, deepening senses of self-love and self-respect (which is a lot more difficult than it sounds). Their illness does not define them. Never. Ever. Unless, they choose it to.

Please know that parents of a child suffering from a debilitating mental health issue only desire two things: the removal of judgment about their parenting and an open, willing ear.


My dark days made me strong. Or maybe I already was strong, and they made me prove it.

Emery Lord

FYI: Below are just a few of (the limitless number of) online resources that we have used as a family to support our child.

The Foundry

Kids Help Phone

Kelty Mental Health (BC Children’s Hospital)

Canadian Mental Health Association

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