Let’s say you are diagnosed with breast cancer. After the immediate shock, you would get on the phone, calling friends and friends of friends to discover a network of knowledge. You would be given names of radiologists, surgeons, oncologists, hospitals, and information on the latest treatment protocols. After you start treatment, friends send you cards, flowers, and baskets of fruit. Containers of soup and casseroles of lasagna are left at your front door. You feel supported, comforted, your doctors know exactly what to do, friends and family are always there for you. Your healing process is as planned as it can be.
OR–let’s say your 19-year-old son is diagnosed with depression, so severe that he must leave college midway through his sophomore year. After the immediate shock (and likely it was not so shocking, there were signs along the way even if you didn’t want to see them), you get on the phone–and your friends and friends of friends do not offer a network of knowledge. You are pretty much on your own, trying to find a doctor, a hospital, therapy. Some psychiatrists are too busy to see your son. There is no set protocol or treatment plan. Your son starts on one medication, then switches to another. And when that one doesn’t work, he tries a third. Friends and family–they stop asking how your son is doing. No one sends cards, or flowers, or baskets of fruit. Neither soup nor casseroles are delivered to your door.
With mental illness, you do not get lasagna.
I have never had breast cancer, thankfully. But I have friends who have gone through it and have shared their experiences with me.
But the second part of the story–the diagnosis of a teen with a mental illness–is something I have lived with.
It is very illuminating, and terrifying, to experience the difference between a physical health diagnosis and a mental health diagnosis (and let me state for the record that a mental illness IS a physical health diagnosis. It is a disease of the brain, which is definitely part of the body even if your friends and family don’t see it that way).
I learned two things very soon after our son’s diagnosis:
1. No one has the answers. There is no cure. There are no cutting edge treatments. Our understanding of brain health is 30, maybe more, years behind our knowledge of the rest-of-the-body health.
2. I, together with my wonderful husband who I should have mentioned by now, felt and were absolutely alone–isolated among friends and family. And if they did inquire about our son, they asked very, very, very gingerly and often, it seemed to me, did not really want to hear the answer. “Spare me the details please,” said the looks on their faces.
And because I am a problem-solver, and had to take action of some kind, I started a support group for parents of young adults who struggle at my synagogue. Jewish parents, as a general rule–and please don’t take offense if you are not like this–want their kids to be high-achievers. Sure we all say, “I just want him to be happy,” but in our heart of hearts we want our kids to be successful, to get on a straight path to independent young adulthood with stops along the way at a good college, at internships, jobs, or grad school, with solid friendships and then onto successful marriages.
What the parents in our support group all have in common is that some of our kids, unlike the majority of their peers, did not get the internships, or make Dean’s List, or get job offers from think tanks. Our kids are not studying for the LSAT or considering graduate school. Most of us feel lucky if our kids got out of bed in the morning or remembered to take their meds. The road to stability for some young adults with mental illness can be a long one.
Of course, there are many young adults (between ages 18 and 25 is when 75 percent of the symptoms of lifetime cases of mental illness emerge) who do promptly find meds that work and therapy that helps. They go on to live their lives with their mental illnesses well in check.
And that’s just it, when your kid gets a diagnosis of mental illness, you don’t know what lies ahead. The uncertainty, the rollercoaster nature of the illness, has been for me the most painful part.
So if your friend calls you to tell you that her son is struggling with depression and may have to leave college, or her daughter’s anxiety is getting worse, please, do me a favor, put the phone down, go out, and buy some fruit or flowers, or a prepared casserole (it doesn’t need to be homemade, trust me)–and race over to your friend’s house. Don’t just leave the flowers, fruit, and casserole at the front door. Ring the bell, give a hug. Say, “I’m here to listen.” Then do.