How I didn’t spot my teenager had a mental health problem
This is my story of how I didn’t spot that my child has a mental health problem. I’m telling it in the hope that it may help prevent other parents making the same mistake. It seems incredible looking back that I didn’t realise. In my defence, I had no previous experience of mental health problems and I definitely didn’t know what depression in a teenager might look like.
Note: My child, B, identifies as non-binary so I have used they/them pronouns below.
The early years
When I started my parenthood journey with my first child, I poured over the What to Expect books, ticking off milestones over the first two years. I had stopped reading them by the time my second child was born, as I felt more confident. Things seemed to be going pretty well and the children seemed happy. They squabbled a bit and, as an only child myself, I didn’t know how to deal with this so I investigated methods of dealing with sibling rivalry. I found some useful advice and we seemed to be back on track.
The second child, B, I always found quite difficult. They were strong-willed from an early age, refusing to wear a coat in cold weather, suddenly taking shoes off in restaurants and refusing to put them back on, an incredibly fussy eater. But they seemed happy. They seemed confident. I always had to worry about them running off because, unlike other children, they didn’t seem anxious if we, the parents, were out of sight.
At three years old they marched up to the information desk in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, their head just poking above the desk, and asked loudly and clearly ‘where is the Dum Dum head?’; Night at the Museum being one of their favourite films. They were always climbing trees, poles, railings, anything that came to hand. They were a cute, adorable, funny child, with a strong-willed, independent streak. “Not a people-pleaser” is how I would sometimes describe them. But, although this made being their mother difficult, I was secretly proud that they seemed happy to follow their own path.
The teenage years
The first child, A, was always much easier going. A very chatty child, I confess I got out of the habit of listening she talked so much. Then she became a teenager. This was a shock; like Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin the Teenager’ sketch. One day, my lovely, easy-going teenager with her hair in bunches went upstairs and the next day a sullen, sulky teenager with hair pulled down over face came downstairs. I had no idea that that sketch was actually just real life. Doors started slamming in the house and “Leave me alone” became her favourite phrase.
How I longed for all that chat to come back. How guilty I felt for the times I hadn’t been listening. I was genuinely concerned about what had happened.
Fortunately, through my work I had access to a telephone help service for family issues. I called. I spoke to a lovely lady who was very reassuring. She explained that this behaviour was just normal teenage behaviour.
I had to change my parenting kit. Just as I had put away the physical kit, baby wipes and nappy bags, at the end of the toddler years, now I needed to change my psychological kit. She recommended the book ‘How to Talk so Teens Will Listen and Listen so Teens Will Talk’. I bought it and read it cover to cover. I heaved a sigh of relief. All was well. This was normal. It was a phase and it would pass.
So when my second child, B, started slamming doors and yelling at me to go away, I wasn’t alarmed. They too are a teenager now, I thought. This is normal. They lay on the sofa and watched TV and, if I came near, they yelled at me to go away. There were no tears. There was a lot of anger. A lot. This is normal I told myself, just teenage behaviour and it will pass. But it didn’t. Years passed. Maybe two.
A false start
Finally, one day, at the end of an Easter holiday, I took my head out of the sand. My child has spent the entire Easter holiday lying on the sofa watching TV! They have done nothing else at all. This is not for lack of opportunity or resources. And they don’t shower, or look after their personal appearance. And they have no interest in food.
The penny dropped: perhaps they are depressed. Are you depressed?, I asked. Yes, they said. But even then, I couldn’t quite believe it. What is there to be depressed about? Perhaps you should see a therapist, I said. Yes, they said. I still did nothing for a bit. I’m not even sure why. I guess I might have been clinging to the hope it would just pass.
Eventually I found a local therapist who seemed nice. B went for about 3 months and then said they didn’t want to go any more. I thanked the therapist for her help and we agreed to end the sessions. The therapist did not say to me ‘your child needs to continue therapy; your child is unwell and needs help’. I thought B seemed better. I put my head back in the sand.
B hardly ever went out. They were nearly 16 and I could count on one hand the number of parties they’d been to. They never (and I mean never) met anyone from school outside of school.
I decided that I should check up with the school what was going on here. I met with the Head of Pastoral and discussed the lack of friendships. Nothing to worry about, she said. In her view, B was not isolated from her peers and, if anything, the lack of friendships was B’s choice. B wasn’t sitting alone at break times. She described B as “an attractive proposition” as a friend, as if I was enquiring about marketing my new product. She did not say I should be worried about my child’s mental health.
I’m at work and an email from B’s school arrives in my personal email. “Tragic news – please read” was the title. A classmate of B’s had taken her own life. It was a wake up call for me. This classmate had seemed clever, popular, beautiful, with a loving family. Why would she do this? But if she could do this, what about my own child? The school organised counsellors to provide support to classmates. B came home and told me the counsellor said she needed to see a therapist.
February half term holiday came and we went on holiday to Italy. Newspapers started reporting deaths from a new virus. By mid-March schools had closed. A couple of months later, B was begging me to find a therapist. I’m not sure why I was still stalling. I searched on-line and started emailing. I might have a vacancy in 2022, said one.
In desperation, I emailed Suzie Orbach’s practice having read her book “In therapy”. They couldn’t help but suggested someone who might. B started on-line with her. B liked her. Your daughter has suicidal thoughts, she said. Your daughter might be autistic, she said. And my head was finally out of the sand.
I took B to the GP and got them on the waiting list for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services. After more therapy still wasn’t helping, I got a private psychiatrist assessment. B was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and on the autistic spectrum. Anti-depressants were prescribed. Recently, I asked the GP for blood tests to check for physical causes of depression. Extremely low Vitamin D was found which can cause low mood.
More than eighteen months later B is still seeing the therapist once a week and the psychiatrist is still adjusting the anti-depressants. B has started taking Vitamin D supplements.
I am still learning to be a parent to a teenager with mental health problems. I guess it is a journey, but at least it’s one I found out I was on before it was too late.