I totally understand why a parent could be in denial about their child’s health condition–particularly if it involves the mind or brain. It can be hard for a parent to accept, for example, that their child has depression, bipolar, GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), or schizophrenia.
Usually, mental disorders are conditions that attract stigma and prejudice and so understandably, no parent would want their child to be the target of such unpleasantness. And yet, the lack of acceptance on the part of a parent can make the situation worse for the child. If a child is truly depressed, bipolar, severely and chronically anxious, or is having hallucinations–a parent’s denial will only delay much-needed treatment that will help improve their child’s mental health.
In late 2019, I was invited to join a panel in a mental health forum called “R U OK: The Role of PR in Speaking the Truth About Mental Health”. This was held at the auditorium of the De La Salle College of St. Benilde. Besides the brilliant insights by speakers like psychiatrist and mental health advocate Aileen Nepomuceno, MD; and clinical psychologist Ronald Del Castillo, I was also floored by insights coming from the participating students in the audience.
During the open forum, many students asked about what to do with their parents who seem to ignore their pleas: they said that even when they talk to their parents and ask for help with what they (the students) suspect as symptoms of depression, the parents refuse to do anything. Some of the students revealed that they’ve been asking their parents’ help to get medical attention but the latter were essentially dismissive of them.
Some of the students were on the verge of tears during the open forum as they spoke about how their own parents were not listening to them and even denying the possibility that they were going through depression.
Later on, when I was about to leave Benilde (because I had to go back to the office), an employee of the school approached me and asked for help. We had a long conversation about his son who was not doing well in school–and is asking for help with possible symptoms of depression.
“What do you think, sir? Could my son really have depression? Do I take him to the doctor?” I told the employee–and I was somehow relieved that he at least was considering the possibility that his son needed medical help–to listen to his son. I said that whether the son really turns out to be depressed or not, a doctor’s assessment would put the matter to rest. And if the son was, indeed, depressed, then it’s only right for the child to get the necessary treatment for the illness.
Not all parents are that open to the possibility of mental illness in their children. I once spoke to a pastor who admitted that, for the longest time, he and his church looked on depression as an attitude problem, as a result of “lack of discipline” or even a moral failing. As such, their “treatment” for depression involved moral correction, disciplinary action, and spiritual guidance.
Unfortunately, the circumstance that led this pastor to change his mind about depression involved his own son. His son had claimed to be suffering from depression and had asked to be taken to a doctor. Prior to making such a claim, the son had been engaging in contrarian behavior, flouting family rules, and was acting very much like a rebellious teen.
The pastor had thought that his son needed moral correction, discipline, and spiritual guidance instead of medical help. Tragically, the son eventually ended up hanging himself in his room. And suicide, of course, is the worst, fatal outcome for a person with untreated depression or bipolar symptoms.
After this, the pastor and other church elders decided to work with psychologists to implement mental health support programs for their young church members.
Must we blame a parent for being in denial about their child’s mental health issues? Yes and no. Of course, logically, every parent must take it seriously when their child complains of some possible illness–whether it’s physical or mental. To refuse to do so seems uncaring and negligent.
However, parents are also under the thrall of wrong ideas, stigma, and prejudices in our society–much like many of us. This makes it difficult for them to even accept, much less understand the reality of mental illness. Such parents need help in getting more educated and accepting about the matter.
I’ve been a mental health advocate since 2013, since I founded a Facebook mental health support group called “Healthy Mind Manila”. But even I had a hard time accepting it when my youngest daughter, Sophia, asked to be taken to a doctor for a possible mental disorder: she suspected that she has ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
Before telling us about her symptoms and her suspicion that they were caused by ADHD, Sophia had done weeks of research. She even took an online assessment for ADHD. The results showed that she “likely” had the condition.
I can admit now that while I didn’t dismiss the possibility outright, I procrastinated. I kept putting off the task of doing something about my daughter’s plea for help. I simply needed time to accept the possibility. Plus, I was more familiar with other mental illnesses–and I knew very little about ADHD.
By the time I had decided to help my daughter, it was already tough to get a doctor’s appointment. We didn’t want to do a face-to-face consultation because of concerns about COVID-19 so it took a while to find a doctor that did telemed consultations (done through video chat or by voice call).
Fortuitously (you will know why later), we ended up consulting with the psychiatrist who treated me for bipolar disorder. I couldn’t continue seeing her because travelling to her clinic in BGC had become quite difficult for me, as someone who lives in a suburb outside of Metro Manila. Still, she’s one of the best doctors that I have consulted with–and it so happens she’s also a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
The telemed consultation with my daughter lasted more than one hour. It was a long interview as the doctor teased out my daughter’s reported symptoms. Finally, the doctor spoke to me. This is a paraphrased account of our conversation:
Doctor: Well, your daughter has ADHD. There are three types of ADHD. There’s the Inattentive Type, where the patient has difficulty focusing and is easily distracted. There’s the hyperactive type, which involves the need to move constantly. It also includes impulsivity. Third, there’s the combined type, which is a combination of the first two types. Your daughter has the third type.
Me: Okay. [I followed this up with some more questions and I asked how severely the ADHD is affecting my daughter. I told the doctor that I haven’t noticed any major disruptions in my daughter’s behavior or academic performance.]
Doctor: Sophia is struggling a lot. She’s been having a tough time in school and with her friends. The only reason why it isn’t obvious is that she’s very intelligent. She figures out ways to cope. Sobrang talino kasi ng anak mo kaya hindi halata. But her ADHD is severe enough to warrant medication. Therapy alone isn’t enough. She’s been coping with her symptoms, of course, but without medication she’ll just get exhausted with her coping and she’ll get worse.
And then the doctor said something that surprised me but also made me laugh at myself, inwardly.
Doctor: You do know that ADHD has a genetic factor, right? Sophia likely has ADHD because she inherited it. And if you can recall, several years back, I raised to you the possibility that, based on your symptoms, you have ADHD. We just weren’t able to address that because at the time, we were more focused on your bipolar because it was giving you more serious problems.
[With that, my mind did a quick recap and time-travelled back to 2014 and then remembered: yes, the doctor did bring that up. But I dismissed it. I had a stereotypical notion of ADHD that included visions of “wild” uncontrolled behavior–and I never had that. And yes, the bipolar symptoms were more urgent at the time.]
Me: So…. does this mean that I have to take ADHD medication, too?
Doctor: Not necessarily. Adult ADHD is usually not as serious as during childhood and adolescence. You have so far been coping with it all your life. I’ll leave it up to you. You have the option to take the medication and see if it helps you.
It took me two days to fully process the possibility that I have ADHD and that my daughter likely inherited it from me. And yes, I decided to try out the Ritalin (methylphenidate, the standard medication for ADHD) just to see if it could be helpful. It was a revelation.
While I’m on a maintenance dose of two mood stabilizers (lithium and valproic acid) there’s always been a static, a “white noise” of racing thoughts in my head that I had always thought of as either just normal for everyone else, or could be caused by hypomania. I am also frequently, annoyingly, forgetful–which I also attributed to the mania.
Even with mood stabilizing medication, these bothersome symptoms never go away. Well, even after taking just one dose of Ritalin, these symptoms disappeared. I liken it to being stuck in the middle of a noisy party all my life, where everyone is making frenetic chika-chika and distracting me, and making it hard for me to focus a lot of times.
Well, after the dose of Ritalin, it was like I had walked away from the party and ended up in an empty corridor. All the racing thoughts disappeared. It was suddenly so quiet inside my mind. It was so different from what I was used to, I actually got scared.
I tell my daughter that, after doing a lot more research into ADHD, I like to think of ADHD symptoms as superpowers. After all, a hyperactive brain just means your brain is working harder than most neurotypical humans.
“But ADHD can be like an unfocused, uncontrolled superpower. Like the X-Men. Cyclops’ laser eyes practically blasts everything it touches until Xavier gives him ruby sunglasses to focus the power beams. And telekenetics like Jean Gray needed to train in order to control their powers, too. So we can look at our ADHD that way,” I said to her. I don’t even know if she was listening to me because it looked like she zoned out while I was talking to her.
I mean, my daughter and I could just train our ADHD superpowers and be a superhero team called “Awesome Daughter and Helium Dad” (ADHD. I’m getting that trademarked.)
Why “Helium Dad”? I thought of “Heavy Dad” at first but that might discourage me from losing weight. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have helium properties slash powers like being low density, having a low boiling point, being inert, odorless, colorless, tasteless but also having low solubility and high thermal conductivity?
Stay mindful. Stay safe. And stay healthy, everyone!