Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Journey through the Labyrinth of Mental Illness: Families Confront a Child with a Mental Illness, Driven by a Powerful Combination of Love, Uncertainty, Worry, and, in Some Cases, Desperation

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Journey through the Labyrinth of Mental Illness: Families Confront a Child with a Mental Illness, Driven by a Powerful Combination of Love, Uncertainty, Worry, and, in Some Cases, Desperation

Article excerpt

SARA has always had the best laugh, joyful and infectious. She also is one of the bravest people I know. From the time she was an infant, Sara was an eager child who found fun in almost everything. She loved learning and people and took on new challenges and friends with delight. No one anticipated in those early years that sprouting within this happy, charming child were the seeds of the generalized anxiety and panic disorder that would frame much of her childhood and young adult life. Other than Sara, I suppose my husband Glenn and I were least prepared of all.

Behind every student dealing with a mental health problem is a family trying to grasp what's happening to their child and struggling to do its best. That effort is often muddled, sometimes inadequate, and occasionally even counterproductive, but it's almost always driven by a powerful combination of love, uncertainty, worry, and, in some cases, desperation. Educators naturally see a student with mental illness through the lens of learning. However, understanding the child and family perspective is critical to meeting the student's needs effectively.

Our journey through the labyrinth of mental illness began when Sara was seven, although we didn't realize it at the time. She became afraid to go to bed at night, a seemingly normal childhood fear. We did what parents do: We read extra stories, sat on the edge of her bed, rubbed her back, and tiptoed out of her room after she had fallen asleep, night after night. Sara couldn't tell us what she was afraid of beyond not wanting to be alone. Despite our increasingly longer bedtime routine, things got worse, not better. Sara started worrying and talking about being afraid to go to bed at dinner, then when she got home from school, then in the car on the way to school, then when she got up in the morning. Her fear began to consume our attention.

Sara was doing well at school. She loved music and art and had close friends. Then her 2nd-grade teacher started sending home notes saying Sara was being disruptive. She wasn't waiting her turn to speak in class. She raised her hand but blurted out answers to questions anyway. She interrupted her classmates. The teacher not-so-helpfully suggested we tell Sara to stop, which we did but Sara did not. Discussions about Sara's respectfulness and self-control added to our collective dinner table angst. Sara also began to complain of headaches and went to the school nurse frequently, so we got her eyes tested. Her new glasses helped her see the blackboard better but didn't do much for the headaches. It didn't occur to us that both Sara's overzealous need to be recognized and her headaches were related to her fear of bedtime. We were clueless.

Looking back now, I can see that the seeds of some of our biggest mistakes were planted in these early days and with them what would become for Sara an insidious self-doubt. After weeks of near hysteria leading up to bedtime every night, our patience frayed. Sara didn't seem to be making any progress toward "getting over it" and being comfortable again to sleep in her pretty bed with her menagerie of stuffed hippos. Her inability to articulate exactly why she was afraid frustrated Glenn, in particular, who became convinced she was just being difficult, and we needed to stop coddling her. In ignorance and frustration, we turned what should have remained abundant empathy and support into a disciplinary nightmare. Our concern and frustration became exasperation, which became dismissal of her fears and then anger and punishment.

Not surprisingly, Sara didn't respond well to our growing intolerance. Anger-based discipline doesn't change behavior any better at home than it does at school, particularly when it fails to address the underlying cause of the behavior. We reached a breaking point the night Glenn, an incredibly loving father who would do almost anything for his children and pretty much has, spanked Sara, who became so hysterical she threw up. …

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