By Victoria Costello
Over a decade ago, at age 17, my son Alex lost his ability to finish a whole sentence, wear shoes, get even a half night’s sleep, or face the other kids at school. After getting Alex to a psychiatrist for a mental health evaluation I learned that, like the majority of parents, I hadn’t recognized earlier signs of psychological trouble in my child. Other essential information I was missing was a complete family mental health history. As psychology researcher Dr. Terrie E. Moffitt of Duke University told me later, “Family history can make the difference between ‘treat now’ or ‘wait and see’.”
One problem keeping this valuable information secret for many is the stigma surrounding mental illness. Going back through three generations with the help of Alex’s psychiatrist, I learned that the alcoholism, drug use and erratic behaviors of my father and sister were likely signs of undiagnosed mental disorders. This knowledge put Alex’s symptoms in a different light, his doctor explained. She recommended a brief course of antipsychotic medication and two years of psychotherapy—treatment which brought my son to a full recovery for what turned out to be early signs of psychosis. With early intervention, mental illness is stoppable, even preventable.
Here are the top ten things a parent can do to safeguard a child’s mental health
1. Chart a “tree” of your family mental health history going back three generations, and include all known or suspected mental disorders and addictions. Use the US Surgeon General’s online form ( familyhistory.hhs.gov) for recording and storing this information and make it a shared family project to maintain it.
2. Plan your pregnancies! And strongly consider your mental and emotional health before and during pregnancy. If you are currently on an antidepressant, talk to a mental health professional before deciding whether to go off or stay on it during pregnancy. Medication may pose fewer risks to your child than would your severe depression.
3. Learn about toxic environmental agents that may cause miscarriages, birth defects or developmental problems later in childhood. A good web resource for the latest information on everything from chickenpox to plastic bottles is the March of Dimes (www.marchofdimes.com)
4. Take paternal risk factors into account Children of men over 50 are at a higher risk for schizophrenia and autism. A man’s alcohol intake and drug use at any age is also associated with higher miscarriage rates.
5. Fix Mom first Think of your actions as an act of prevention for your child’s mental health. If your child already has similar symptoms, new research (from Columbia University) has shown that by treating the mother, a depressed or anxious child will get better too—without direct treatment.
6. Monitor your child’s behavior for early symptoms If there is a high density of any one mental illness in your family history, learn about the early signs for that disorder; for example, social withdrawal for depression, and keep a log of your child’s behaviors.
7. Normalize feelings As soon as your child begins to recognize and name her own thoughts and feelings, start an age-appropriate conversation about how people’s minds and hearts work. This “normalization” of differences makes it more likely that your child will confide any future psychological problems to you and be less inclined to stigmatize others.
8. Have Zero Tolerance towards Bullying Whether your child is the victim or the bully, and even if your child begs you not to make a fuss, understand that the potential psychological damage (including suicide) if the abuse continues is far worse than any temporary embarrassment.
9. Make Self Esteem a Family Priority Self-esteem has gotten a bad rap because it’s been confused with having an inflated sense of one’s positive qualities and abilities. True self-esteem is the basis of emotional resiliency, which gets severely tested at several points in childhood—especially around early parent-child separations and the tween years.
10. Build up your Family and Community Support System Down the street or online, don’t isolate, socialize. Ask for help and offer it to other moms and dads.