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How to Help When Your Kid Is Diagnosed with a Mental Illness

The late teens and early twenties are the time when many kids leave the nest. They’re also the average age of onset for the most common mental illnesses, including bipolar, major depression, and schizophrenia. Having a college-bound kid diagnosed with a mental illness can be a major source of stress to everyone in the family. Here’s how you can help—whether your son or daughter is 500 miles away in Collegetown, IL, or has just crash-landed in the basement.

Talk to us. Take an interest in how we perceive the bigger picture. Casual questions like “So how do you feel about this whole bipolar thing?” are a good place to start. Questions like this show that you’re interested without making any assumptions about what it “means” to have a mental illness—and they give us the space to respond on our own terms.

Talk to other parents. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers a free 12-week “Family-to-Family” course for family members of people with mental illnesses. The course is taught by trained family members and is a great way to learn about mental illness, meet other parents, and ask questions—any questions—from people who are guaranteed not to snarl at you or take offense.

Open up about our family’s history with mental illness. Chances are, we’re not the first person in the family to struggle with mental illness—but we may not know that. So tell us about our great-grandfather’s suicide, our cousin’s schizophrenia, or your own experience with post-partum depression. Knowing that other family members have gone through what we’re going through makes us feel like less of an alien—and it’s useful information for our psychiatrist, too.

Offer a level of involvement appropriate to our needs. Mental illnesses vary in severity. If we’ve been diagnosed with a mild form of bipolar and are currently stable, don’t fly out from the East Coast to pack us off to an expensive mental hospital. On the other hand, if we’ve just had a psychotic break, we might need a teensy bit more support than e-mailed reminders to hand our essays in on time. When it comes to getting involved in our lives, take your cue from us.

Ditch your misconceptions. For a 20-something recently diagnosed with a mental illness, there are few things worse than a parent who gets ants in her pants every time she hears yet another completely absurd tidbit of information about our condition (“I read that people with OCD shouldn’t eat oranges!”). The more accurately-informed you are about our condition, the more we’ll trust you.

Have realistic expectations. Living with a mental illness is a life-long project. We know that, and so should you. So don’t pressure us to graduate, move out of the house, or start working full-time when we’re still trying to piece ourselves back together about a psychiatric meltdown.

Focus on recovery. More than anything else, we need you to believe that we can recover from our illness. We need you to remember how happy, curious, and hopeful we were before the mental illness struck, and remind us that some day we will feel good again.

Hilary Smith, author of Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Wanted to Know About Bipolar But Were Too Freaked Out to Ask