October 7-11 is Mental Health Awareness Week. This week was established in 1990 by the U.S. Congress in recognition of efforts by the National Alliance on Mental Illness to educate and increase awareness about mental illness. Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans are affected by mental health conditions? That number increases significantly when we talk about children in our foster care system. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “up to 80 percent of children in foster care have significant mental health issues, compared to approximately 18-22 percent of the general population.”
For foster, adoptive, and kinship parents, it can be tough to understand what is going on in the mind of the child they care for. That’s why this week, we’re sharing the experiences of a former foster child (now adopted) will PTSD and depression and her adoptive mother. We hope reading their experiences and advice helps other foster, adoptive, and kinship parents understand mental illness from both perspectives.
Mental Illness from a Child’s Point of View
At the age of 10, Ellena was placed in foster care with her now adoptive mother Lori. As a result of her birth home and birth family, Ellena has both depression and PTSD and struggled as a child with suicidal thoughts and actions. What follows is some advice based on her own experiences.
What did you do to cope with the idea of yourself having a mental illness?
I mostly told myself that anyone who went through half of the abuse and trauma I did as a child would have some healing to do. I just told myself “I know I’m not right or normal like other kids. I don’t have the same thoughts they do.” I also knew that that I could be sad my whole life and hate everything or I could instead look at the positives of everything. So, I did.
What did you struggle with the most?
As a young kid I struggled with suicidal thoughts and actions. I had just decided as a child that the world was better off without me. Luckily, I was not very good with follow through. I had been told my whole life I was worthless and no one would ever love me. As a child you believe that. I felt like there was a nuisance except the nuisance was me and I couldn’t get rid of me no matter how much I tried.
What helped you cope?
Honestly, music was very healing for me. In a way, I was very numb to physical and mental pain but there was something about a good sad song that made me confront my tears and let them out. I also had an awesome adoptive mother. She just really made it hard for me to have time to think about the scary, lonely, and dark times. She was overwhelming with compliments and overwhelming with activities. While that may not work for everyone, I was unconsciously too busy or exhausted to think dark thoughts.
What advice would you give other children or young adults struggling with mental illness?
My advice is give it time, let it out, and get help when you need it. You are feeling what you are feeling for a reason, and it’s not going to go away overnight. I spent nights ALL NIGHT crying in my room in a ball with the most gut-wrenching hatred and pain in my stomach because I needed to get it out. It took YEARS until I was what someone would consider stable, and I still work on it every day as a young adult. I also got help I saw a therapist and was put on medication that even as an adult I still need. Know that there are people out there that WANT to help you because you ARE worth it.
What advice can you give to parents of children with mental illness?
Let them take their time. Let them cry it out. Understand that every day is a bad day for them. We need you to find the positive for us because we won’t willingly. We need you to remind us of our worth in subtitle ways. When we do come to you and say we tried something, don’t be mad. Please overpower us with love because we are most likely still here because we didn’t try to our full potential. Our brain knows deep down we want to be here, we just need reminding why we should be here.
Know when it’s time to get help for yourself too. “It takes a village to heal the broken.” Parenting a broken child takes a tole so don’t let yourself fall into a pit too.
What do you do now to stay stable?
I surround myself with a great support system. I also keep myself busy. It’s when I’m lonely and it’s quiet, those thoughts slip in. Yes, I am 22 they still slip into my mind every once in a while. I just know now I can go to my therapist or my mom for a reminder when I need it. I am also a firm believer that animals are the friend everyone needs. They don’t judge us they just love us. Luckily for me, I’ve always had a shoulder to cry on, my dog.
Mental Illness From a Parent’s Point of View
Meet Lori, she is a single, adoptive mom of four daughters. Her first foster/adoptive placement was Ellena in 2007. Ellena’s adoption finalized in 2008. She then had a foster placement with twins Rachel and Emily, placed with her at 8 years old in 2010. Their adoption finalized in 2011. In 2017, she did an adult adoption of Ellena’s older birth sister, Julia, who was 23 years old.
What is your experience with mental illness?
All four of my daughters have mental illness. Not to be specific with who has what, the issues are, PTSD, RAD, ODD, bi-polar, depression, mood-disorder, emotional disability, autism, and residential placements for one child. Research was very important for me - I armed myself with knowledge which is very important and KEY to getting your children diagnosed and the appropriate services.
What did you do to cope with the idea of mental illness in your children?
For a long time, I liked to think I was superwoman and had a cape and could do it all while working a VERY demanding full time job! I have fought a tireless battle with the mental health field in Virginia. Virginia is a horrible state for mental illness. I have had to pay out of pocket for some testing because insurance would not cover it. So, on top of having to fight/battle with insurance and the mental health field itself, I have to tend to the needs of each child and their mental illness. I seek all kinds of therapy and programs to help my children deal with each of their issues. I really try hard to help them and be positive and supportive, but many times I feel that I fall short. This is a lot for one person. Within the last two years, I have figured out that I need to take better care of myself so I can take better care of them. I see a therapist to help me deal with these issues with my kids and I utilize respite for the younger two twice a month.
What did you struggle with the most as the parent?
RESOURCES and ADVOCACY. There is no central resource or advocacy unit for Virginia foster/adoptive parents. I have been VERY frustrated with the system and trying to get assistance and guidance to help me deal with the various mental health issues of my children. I feel like David fighting Goliath. I fight and will battle until the end and will not go away but it is exhausting. It should not be this hard for parents trying to help traumatized/hurt children. If you have to battle this much for services, it taps you out and leaves you drained and on empty to deal with the children on a daily basis - and there always seems to be a crisis. It is overwhelming and exhausting.
What helped you cope as a parent?
I spoke with other adoptive parents and their struggles. I see a therapist and she is for me, and how I am dealing with things. I started to utilize respite for the younger two children.
What advice would you give other parents for coping with their child’s mental illness?
Make sure you have a strong support system for yourself. Utilize therapy for yourself and make self-care important. Everyone used to use the airline oxygen mask analogy for me - I hated that analogy. It is true though. Also, educate yourself. Research various mental illnesses and learn them. Knowledge truly is power!
What did you do to help your child?
Research and fight for them. With everything I have mentioned previously, I also try to create a very comfortable and homey home. I stress the importance of family and family time. I try to instill family values and morals.
I am open as much as possible about their illnesses, it may in very simple terms. I try to help them develop coping skills to deal with these issues. I also work hard to teach them to advocate for themselves. I have them in therapy and obtained medication as needed that has helped them tremendously.
I worked hard to have them maintain relationships with their birth siblings as this helps them in dealing with loss. This involves many get togethers and sometimes traveling out of state.
I think animals are very important in healing as well. Animals take the human element out the equation. For my four daughters, the humans in their life have been mean, cruel and have harmed them. They could not trust humans. Animals help to teach them trust, compassion, and empathy. We have utilized Wings of Hope Ranch where rescue horses are used to rescue children. It is a wonderful concept. They would go once a month and ride horses. It helped the horses and the children. We volunteer at Operation Catnip, a program that spays feral cats. We have animals at home.
How has your mental health experience with your children shaped your view on life and family?
It has showed me that although everything may look normal on the outside, you have no idea what someone is going through on the inside.
Resources for Parents and Children
As you can see, there are a few themes between parent and child when it comes to coping with mental illness:
- Furry friends
Both parent and child should work with mental health professionals. You should not tackle mental illness on your own. The support of a professional is key.
As a parent, you can’t drink from an empty cup. You have to take care of yourself. We often post opportunities for respite care through our organization and others within out Family Support Collaborative. Follow our Facebook Page or check out our Event Calendar.
Having a network or group of people who know and understand what you’re going through is also important. This work can be isolating. Suffering from mental illness can be isolating. Surround yourself with a support system. Click here to find a support group or learn more about our Trailblazers program.
Knowledge is power. We host webinars, conferences, Facebook Live chats and more so that our members have the knowledge and resources they need. Check out our archive of webinars, upcoming events, and resources on adoption, fostering, or Kinship care. Also, don’t miss out on our upcoming (and FREE) Adoption Conference (November 2-3).
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255