By David Joel Miller.
The high cost of growing up with a mental illness.
Lots of attention has been focused on how the severely mentally ill may be different from others. Very little attention seems to be paid to how the experience of having a mental or emotional problem in early life changes who that person becomes.
The prevailing myth is that childhood is a happy time; life problems and the resulting emotional distress come later, the cost of growing up. We would like to hold onto this Peter Pan fiction despite the fact that more than a few of us have our own memories of childhood emotional or mental difficulties.
Who we become as adults is shaped by our experiences and what we learn about the nature of the world we live in. The life events of the mentally or emotionally challenged child are significantly different from those others undergo. These early emotional experiences create the adult they will become.
The challenge of growing up with a mental illness changes every aspect of your experience. Those life experiences contribute more to who the mentally ill child becomes that the particular emotional illness they have.
For the child with an emotional problem all relationships are fundamentally altered. The cranky from birth child is hard to care for. Interactions with the caregiver depend on the extent of the child’s mental illness and the age at which the symptoms first develop. The problem child gets labeled and learns the role of Black sheep, the creator of the family’s dysfunction.
Peer relationships are likely to be distorted. The depressed or emotional child is more likely to be bullied and rejected by peers. They grow up alone, unaccepted and victimized.
Their symptoms call down the wrath of teachers and adult authority figures. They are more likely to be judged by their symptoms than for themselves.
As difficult as the teen years are for the “typical” teen they are extra difficult of a teen who is struggling with mental illness. They may find it difficult to establish supportive friendships and have fewer resources to draw on to navigate the developmental tasks of growing up.
When and if they develop an intimate partner relationship that connection will be heavily influenced by the persons mental illness. They are more likely to enter relationships with other mentally ill partners or to become the victims of partners who take advantage of their weaknesses. Being involved in relationships with other mentally ill people adds a double strain to the process of establishing healthy relationships.
They also have more difficulty staying in school and finishing their education. As a result career options are more limited and the emotional challenged youth is more likely to be unemployed or under employed.
The mentality ill leave home and school to become a permanent member of an unnoticed minority. Regardless of their race or ethnicity the emotionally challenged child grows up to be a victim of discrimination.
The mentally ill child is often scapegoated and blamed for the family’s problems. Some of them have grown up as the caregivers of mentally ill parents.
They come to question who they are when they are depressed, when they are manic or when they experience other symptoms. The question becomes which part of their experience and their behavior is them and which is the result of their illness.
They often experience adults who view they symptoms as a matter of choice rather than illness and who tell them to just snap out of it and act normal. They wonder why others can cope with life and they find it such a challenge.
Growing up mentally ill can result in feelings of self-doubt and negative beliefs about the self. They come to think that they can’t do anything right. Not liking themselves is common.
Even when they enter the system they are likely to be viewed as incompetent rather than uneducated. They are likely to be assigned case managers who see their job as permanently managing these people who form a drain on society’s resources.
The professional that believes in recovery and a full and happy life for the mentally ill has long been the exception rather than the standard.
The cumulative impact of these experiences can easily lead to an adult mentally ill person who has come to accept that they are somehow defective and unwanted. They become marginalized unable to work, dependent on scanty government and family handouts and convinced by years of learned helplessness that they would not be able to succeed if given the chance.
We as a society create these angry depressed and isolated adult mentally ill by our unwillingness to recognize and help these youths who are struggling to overcome an emotional issue.
What is critically needed is more emphasis on early detection and treatment of mental and emotional challenges. We also need social service systems that believe in recovery rather than permanently marginalizing the mentally or emotional ill.
David Miller, LMFT, LPCC
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books
- Mental illness and substance abuse only strikes certain zip codes (counselorssoapbox.com)
- Do the mentally ill go to jail? Should they? (counselorssoapbox.com)
- Why we need to talk about mental illness, drugs and alcohol in combination (counselorssoapbox.com)