Sunshine In The Shadow Of Mental Illness

I think it is fair to say that, generally speaking, I try to avoid public discussions of myself and my family. I can’t say I’ve ever written much in that regard though perhaps you can see elements of it in my poems from time to time.

If there is any area that is still so much a taboo these days, mental illness is certainly there.

I’m not saying it isn’t more common, more well-known, better understood. But the stigma that is associated with it still exists in large swaths of the population. And many people’s understanding comes from tv shows that may or may not be taking liberties with reality.

Ultimately it is complicated, painful, and as variable as each individual person’s personality and chemical make up.

So I have four daughters. We’ve been struggling for several years with my youngest. She has shown signs of depression as well as other symptoms we had a lot of trouble figuring out. This started back when she was nine years old. Yes, nine. She is seventeen as I write this.

Just as a bit of background. There are significant numbers of family members going back at least a couple of generations with some form of mental illness. Not everyone and not all severe but there. There’s a whole lot of depression in there and who knows what else? Stuff like that was not discussed in those days.

Back to Melissa. She started out feeling like she wanted to walk in front of moving cars. She went on antidepressants which helped somewhat. But the struggles continued. She had problems with relationships, with her sisters, with her friends, with us.

All of this came to head in the last couple of years. She was skipping school constantly, hanging out with the wrong types of people, obsessing about her problems and others. She’d be hyper. She’d be down. She would constantly go to counsellors, teachers, other adults for support. Most of them did what they could but it became overwhelming. She was losing credits. She went through friends like water.

My wife and I went through every avenue of support we could. She had counselling. She saw a psychiatrist for her medication. We had support workers working with us for months. We kept trying to find something. Anything.

Eventually we got her into a psychiatrist for a full psychological assessment. She was diagnosed with depression. But she also showed significant traits of borderline personality disorder. As a side note they will not generally diagnose a youth with BPD. They note the symptoms but the diagnosis will come when they are adults because there is so much turmoil in the teenage body and mind as it is.

And so we started looking at what types of therapy were required for this. All the information we found both from our support groups, online and experts pointed to behaviour therapy. Most specifically for her was dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). This therapy combines cognitive behaviour techniques with mindful awareness skills.

Basically all that wordy psychobabble amounts to being aware of what you are doing and applying learned skills to either avoid or correct. We found several places in our area that did this but none of it was covered by our provincial health care (yes, I am in Canada) nor under our additional work coverage. Bottom line is that several places were charging $170 per hour and this would go on for months. Needless to say that was beyond our ability to afford.

So we kept going back and forth, trying to see what we could do the scrape the funds together or find a place that did it under the government health care plan. Unfortunately there was nothing.

Finally one of the counsellors at her high school suggested a program she had heard about. It had the meaningless name of Young Adult Program (YAP). Basically we would take her out of school and she would enter this program for a period of up to six months. They would work with her on academics as well as doing individual counselling and mostly group therapy. They had a maximum of 13 kids at any time. And most thankfully, they also included some of the techniques from DBT. And the costs were covered.

We jumped at the chance. Melissa was willing (a requirement). And so she went. It was very difficult. The dynamics were constantly shifting as teens came and went. Some got kicked out. There was constant drama with everyone’s issues. Frankly I don’t know how the staff deal with it all. But it seems for those who attend daily that they reach a point where they either quit or accept that they need to apply the skills they are being taught. Melissa reached that line and pushed through it.

She finished up there a couple of months ago. It is no cure. She still has issues. She will continue to have issues, especially as she transitions back into regular high school this fall. But it did something and gave her and us something that we had not had in a very long time. Hope. Hope that eventually she will learn to fully apply what she’s learned. And that she can look forward a more regular life then we had been able to envision for her.

Anyone with a child with these kind of difficulties knows the pain that comes with it. You cycle back and forth between sorrow and rage. You feel helpless, much as they do dealing with it. There are no end of tears. But this. This. This was a ray of sunlight in what looked to be a very dark road ahead.

Ultimately it will be up to her. She will need to remember, understand, recognize and apply. But for the first time in years, we can hope that there is a good road in that darkness. Both she and we will continue to fight to get there. Giving up is not an option for anyone. It will not be easy. We will share buckets of tears and boatloads of pain. And I for one have to hope it will all be worth it for her in the end.

As Melissa came to the end of her program I realized that this was a fairly unknown option for parents. And I knew they had very limited funding. So I did what could, contacting the hospital, school boards to make sure people could get the word out. And I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper. The letter was too long but they thought it interesting enough to want to do an article. That was published a few weeks ago now. And please note this sounds like the best cure-all ever in some ways. It is not but it gets the information out there at least. You can read it here.

I know my family is not alone struggling to deal with these kinds of issues. And I am sure there are many more issues being dealt with that eat at the very heart of other families. I would love it if people from everywhere would take the time to share their stories, good and bad. If you found a great program or support group, please share it in the comments. Don’t worry where you live. At least it will be online somewhere. If you are too shy but want to send things to me directly, you can e-mail me at

No one is alone though it often feels like it. My wife and I felt lost in a constant battle to find something, someone, somewhere to help Melissa and help us deal with it all. Even if this does not impact you directly, perhaps you know someone who it does. Pass this post along to anyone who you think might appreciate some understanding. Most certainly can’t hurt. And at the end of the day, we all need to take care of each other.

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5 Responses to Sunshine In The Shadow Of Mental Illness

  1. crush-monkey says:

    Sending comfort your way!
    What a strong family you have!

  2. Smirkdirk says:

    This was pretty inspiring, Larry. As a parent of teens myself, my heart goes out to you and your family, and most of all your daughter. Hope – what a great thing it is.

  3. ps the first 2 are CBT training courses, the latter 3 are mindfulness resources.

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