Parents of Mentally Ill Children: “What If He Were Your Kid?”

Dr. Coleman was asked by to write a piece about the parents of Jared Loughner and other parents who have had similar kinds of struggles. Here it is:

What if he were your kid? You wouldn’t raise that kind of kid. You’d know the signs and get help. You’d have spotted it early on and gotten help for him right away. You would’ve seen the warnings and acted before it became the national tragedy that it did. Good parents don’t raise those kinds of kids.
But, what if you’re a good parent and you didn’t see the signs and you did raise that kind of kid, or at least some kid like that?
You knew something was wrong, but you didn’t know what to do. So you told yourself, it’s a phase. Lots of kids these days talk about death, have pictures of skulls, watch violent video games, take drugs and write things that they call poetry; it’s not like any poetry you’d ever read, but what do you know? You’re not a shrink. Maybe it will get better.

You’re not the Loughners, your kid hasn’t been accused of killing anyone, but something’s wrong with your kid and you don’t know what it is and you’re scared. You don’t have a lot of money or you just lost your insurance, so you took your son to the county hospital because lately, he’s been so angry all the time that you don’t know what’s wrong with him.

And the psychiatrist at the county ER tells you that he’s schizophrenic and should be on anti-psychotic medication and they’d like to keep him for two weeks on an involuntary hold.
So they keep him for two weeks on an involuntary hold, but because of the cutbacks in county mental health services, there’s no place to refer him when the hold expires, except back to you. And now that he’s on medication, he’s much calmer and no longer seems to be a threat to others. Crisis averted. Thank God for modern psychiatry.

Except that he doesn’t like the way the anti-psychotic drugs make him feel, so he goes off of them. And soon he’s back to posting angry, disturbing diatribes that don’t make a lot of sense, and this time, he refuses to go back to the hospital because he doesn’t want to be locked up.

So now you’re worried all over again. You know that you could call the police and they would come pick him up and take him back, but he’s still mad at you for hospitalizing him the first time; you can only imagine how angry he’ll be if he’s hauled back there in handcuffs.

But he ends up in handcuffs anyway, not because he’s accused of murdering someone, but because of drugs, or theft, or some other crime. And you’re almost relieved because the terrible end that you thought was coming has finally come.

But maybe your kid doesn’t end up in jail, but ends up living on the streets because he refuses to take your help — anyone’s help — and now you don’t even know where he lives. He stopped calling a long time ago when he figured you weren’t going to keep giving him money, and he refuses to talk to anyone else in the family, even his brother, whom he was once close to.

And you’d like to get support for how heartbroken and guilt-ridden you feel, but you don’t know where to get it because everyone assumes that you must have done something terribly wrong to have produced a kid who has such serious problems, or who wants nothing to do with you.And no one believes that more than you, his mother or father, even though a meek voice of protest rises up inside you to try to unsuccessfully challenge the far more powerful accusing voice.

And watching the evening news, you recognize that while you’re not the parent of a murderer, you feel an affinity for those parents far stronger than the parents of your friends with grandchildren, and children in college, or weddings to plan. You know, like they know, that for all the lousy parents in the world, good people can still create children who do terrible things, or whose lives turn out in ways they never imagined, not in their worst nightmares.

And the image of that father the morning of the shootings, asking him what was in that black bag, knowing his son well enough to know that something was wrong, reminds you of all the signs you ignored or acted on, but apparently not well enough because now, look how things have turned out for you and your kid, your baby.

And no matter how many times you tell yourself it wasn’t your fault, and however secure you are in that knowledge, it never buys you more than the briefest moment of comfort before you’re back to blaming yourself and wondering, “How could I let this happen to my own child? What kind of a parent am I?”

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  2. Jane
    Posted March 3, 2015 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    So much of what you wrote is true. I do feel guilty for my son’s mental illness. He is 28 years old now and was diagnosed around age 21 while in college. At first they weren’t sure if it was schizophrenia or bipolar, but they were leaning more towards schizophrenia. My son was always very shy but very nice. There has never been a mean bone in his body, even when he’s been at his worse psychotic, paranoid and delusional self. He has been hospitalized twice, once at the beginning and just a few months ago. He did manage to finish college, but it took meds, his dad and I, and his girlfriend to get him through. His girlfriend was amazing considering during several of his episodes he thought she was trying to kill him. After graduation he came to live at home and worked with us in our family business until he went into the hospital. We gave our business up to help him. I have been in contact with Nami in our area and they have helped me so much. I encourage everyone to get in touch with Nami. My son is stable now and on meds. Even though he will always have paranoia and delusions he can function in the world. He can tell what’s real and if he starts feeling unsure comes and talks to his dad or I about it. If he had even one day, ONE DAY that he doesn’t take his meds he has a major setback. And, we can tell the next day if he didn’t take his meds. He knows he has to take them, but doesn’t think he is sick and doesn’t want to most of the time. But, at the same time doesn’t like the thoughts our feelings he gets when he doesn’t take his meds. The closer he gets to “reality” the more he thinks he doesn’t need his meds. I don’t know, but I hope he’ll be able to live on his own ever again because of the med issue, although he really wants to. What I’m trying to say, with the right meds and the right counseling your children can be pretty normal. Although, they’ll never be like they were before they got sick, they will be able to cope. It takes time to get them here. I hate having to take my son to the hospital and have him involuntarily committed. I even more hate that he then gets billed for something he never wanted to do (and none of us can afford to pay) but, it does help. It’s horrible hearing your child say “why did you put me here mom? They all hate me and are trying to kill me.” And “they read my thoughts and the whole universe suffers because of me”. Then when he comes home he says “Don’t ever put me there again. I’ve now been in hell twice.” It sure feels horrible. But, I told him when he goes off his medicine he stops sleeping (five days and nights before his hospital stay) and I’d he were to drive in that state of mind he could have an accident and not only kill himself but someone else and I will send him to the hospital if he gets that way again. So, he trusts and believes me and takes his meds. I hope and pray that all of our loved ones gets the help they need and can start living again.

  3. phyllis
    Posted May 26, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    It is a godsend finding this website. I hate to say misery loves company but hey…its tough going thru this alone. I was never going to get married and have children since I suffered from major depression. But when I met my man he told me it was going to be alright since he dealt with his mom with depression. NOT. I cannot tell you how hard its getting with a bad marriage and three children that are sick and confused because their mother is always depressed and dad looks down on me. I am burnt out. I have one with a 30iq and down syndrome and it drained all my energy. MY marriage is …. fragile and the kids feel the pain. I feel so trapped and now I am afraid of the monster that I have created. I should have let them sterilize me at 30. I love my children. But hearing my 22 year old lash out on me tonight when I told him to drive me home from a party early without the father and other 2 girls…to hear him tell me my misery is making them all miserable…that he has felt the stress in the marriage since he was 5. I thought I had problems but I wasn’t ready for this new chapter. I told my son not to blame me for his unhappiness as he had choices to live his life as he wanted. But he is a codependent and couldn’t make it on the college campus. My 13 year old is shy and isolated. My husband just stares at the wall looking dead. And so do I. But I pray about it. Thats how I found the website. For what its worth. All I keep saying is my meds no longer work and I am miserable and scared and don’t know what to do anymore. Know way out.

  4. Lee
    Posted September 11, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    My daughter is 16. This Friday she tried to admit herself to an adult psychiatric ward as she was feeling suicidal. She had been suffering from depression, anxiety, low self esteem and disordered eating. She had found it difficult to stay at college and asked if she could go home early. They said yes because she had done well and completed her work and they could see that she was anxious. She did not tell her father as she did not want him to be cross with her. She got off the bus early and could not cross the road in the rain to get home so she phoned her Grandad. The college did not pass the message on to her father when he rang to find out where she was so he thought she had left college early on purpose and was cross with her. He told her that she was in trouble and he’d better not find her at home when she got home. So she stole some money and caught a bus to the hospital where she lives which is 60 miles away from me. I live that distance away as a year ago she went to live with him to give her a fresh start as her school relationships had broken down and she was causing havoc at home not doing as she should and fighting with her brother verbally all the time and stealing items of his. I left immediately and came up the 60 miles and collected her and bought some food and collected some of her items and stayed at my parents house. Over the weekend I could see she was not well and found out that she was hearing an audible hallucination and had done for a couple of years so I tried to get her to the doctors to get her referred to an inpatient unit for treatment. At accident and emergency they dismissed her condition as nothing to worry about just depression and anxiety and I had to get back to my son 60 miles away I was supposed to be at work on the Monday and looking after him. Her father wouldn’t talk to her and his marriage is on the rocks. His wife has said it’s either my daughter or her. My husband has left my son most days to travel up and down the motorway to be with us and return home to see to my son. This is costing us a fortune and my husband was made redundant a few weeks ago. The situation is that my daughter wants to stay in the same area as where her father and grandparents live. She doesn’t want to come home with me because she fears the school children that bullied her where we live. So after daily assessments by the mental health team after she took an overdose of anti-depressants at the weekend I now find out that she suffers from extreme mood swings and behaviour and she feels as though she has different personalities. My parents do not know yet because I am unable to contact them. Social services can’t help yet because we have to wait and they say the responsibility is with the parents. If we abandon her to make them care for her because no-one can cope because she doesn’t want to come home with me then we have been told that we can be in trouble with the courts and the police because she is barely 16. I am at a loss at the moment because I don’t know what we are dealing with yet. Luckily we have our first psychiatric appointment tomorrow with a proper doctor. If she goes back with her dad she is at risk from harming herself because of the way she feels and the same if she comes back to our house. I have a son, a job and a husband to look after. I feel stuck as I feel we are not getting help quick enough. My son who is 14 is getting anxious I have been away from him 6 nights now and he is missing me and worrying about the situation. The mental health nurse says we have to take it one step at at time. Not look to the future or to the past. I’m hoping that we get some answers soon and that I can convince my daughter to maybe come back with me and not be a risk to herself so I can get her the help she needs. She wants to stay at my parents as she says she feels safe there, they are pensioners and I don’t think it is practical considering what we have been dealing with. Completely shot at, last week our lives were okay, this week our family has just fallen apart.

    • Chris
      Posted December 6, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Oh, your story is so much like the symptoms our 14 year old grandson is having. We are his custodians. But because of his threats, CPS stepped in and have made things AWFUL! They don’t understand mental illness, they’re stuck in the “it’s the way you raised them!” rut. They went 6 WEEKS without getting him to a counselor, they took him to the one I had arranged, then they cancelled him. We are frantic to get him help but not getting anywhere.

  5. Valerie
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    My husband and I are going through this situation and are devestated. Our daughter who is 25 just becomes increasingly more cruel as the days go by. We had a great life together, she was our only child and we never thought we would have kids. We loved that girl and did so much together the 3 of us. She was a Straight A student all through school, friendly outgoing and never had any real trouble. Not until around 19-20 she just started changing. She would start cussing us out and showed no respect. She made poor choices, eloped into marriage at 20 which lasted 4 months and then again at 21 remarried someone she only knew for a year. That is in the process of divorce and she has 2 little kids.

    She accused her father of molesting her when she was 3. She said she felt like he did it. This was devastating to both of us and more horrifying being I was molested myself as a child. My husband took a lie detector test by the top lie detector people and passed. BUT she refuses to accept it. NOW she is saying he molested the neighbor kids also! Not only does she make these accusations she TELLS EVERYONE we know. She says she sees ghosts and demons, she says she talks to people telepathically, she insists that someone broke into her house and put poison in her food, it goes on and on. She puts her kids to bed in dirty clothes, she doesn’t bathe them very often and her house is gross.

    No matter what we do, she becomes angry and says all manner of cruel things. Her latest is that we are not allowed to ever babysit our own grandchilren alone. She will let a pervert watch them alone, but not her mother or father. She says I’m psychotic and tells everyone that as well. Our lives have been turned upside down and frankly we are devastated and heartbroken because all our dreams of having grandchildren and a loving extended family are gone. I’m sure that soon we will never see them at all by the way she continually excludes us from her life.

    We don’t know what to do, we fear for the children who are 3 and 1 and we fear for her. She refuses to listen or believe anything is wrong with her. She tells eveyrone she is a genius and has now started saying she is “pansexual”? Everything seems to get worse day by day and and any advice or if there is a support group or ? We could use it – we are so lost and heart broken.

    • Marty
      Posted August 16, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

      Valerie, please find the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and look at their website, This is an all volunteer organization of people like you, who can give you emotional support, advice on how to deal with things, and information about resources. For the sake of your grandchildren, you must be willing to take action. They are living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Your daughter needs long-term treatment and medication. You may have to refer her to the child protection agency in your area. But you will need to be strong to follow through. Please just remember that she has a serious illness and she needs help, and the illness is distorting her thinking and her ability to think clearly how to help herself. The children are living in an unhealthy and dangerous situation. Please call NAMI today.

    • Anonymous
      Posted September 15, 2013 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      You are not on your own. My son who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia has said the same thing as your daughter only he says he was 11. At the moment he is in hospital under a section. He says he hates me because I gave birth to him and he blames me for being in hospital and because I told mental health he had kicked his bedroom door through. Get help for her. I know you will find it hard but you have to look at the risk your grandchildren are under. Try to keep calm around your daughter and tell her your concerned. She may sound nasty but this is because whatever illness she has is terrifying to her. Like my son she says she is not unwell but that is part of her illness. If you get her the help that she needs she will thank you in the long run. Turn to others that are going through the same kind of thing with there children and get yourself a counciler believe me it will help

  6. Karen Fitzgerald
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know what to think anymore. A bit of background, my oldest brother has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He is very low functioning now. I have moderate depression that is always there unless I take my meds, and I have social anxiety that I have managed to control most of the time through behavioural modification (which translates to parenting myself). I have been happily married for 17 years this May 23rd to my soul mate, and we have two daughters. We are a tight family, my husband was ignored growing up, and I was abused physically, mentally, and sexually, and so we ended up forging our family by doing the opposite of what our parents did with us. We have our 15 year old daughter who is schizophrenic, and our 14 year old daughter who is on the extreme opposite end and more normal and healthy than anyone we have ever come across.

    Our 15 year old came out with hearing voices back in January. She was in a partial hospitalization program because she cut her arms up from elbows to the second knuckle on her fingers. She did this after she was suspended from school for cussing out a teacher. We are still trying to get her meds right so that her voices can stop, and right now she is hospitalized as an inpatient after she attacked a boy that had bullied her since last year, with the voices finally telling her to attack, choke, and beat his head through a wall, before this the voices were just whispering really loud and she couldn’t make out what they were saying. We are doing everything a parent does when their child is sick, and trying desperately to get the voices calmed down, as well as to find a balance for her so that she can have a normal life. But we are going in blind, both trying to parent our kid, and trying to nurture her. It is very hard. We have no support outside of each other.

    We have always known something is wrong with her. I mean always. When she was a baby, she cried all the time. When she was barely 3 months old she was already trying to crawl and because she didn’t have the strength yet she would just scream, and if you picked her up to soothe her while she was going through this it would only make her more upset. She did the same when she was learning to walk, and then by the age of 2 and learning to color, she had to color inside the lines, but at 2 she didn’t have the coordination to do that, so she would throw a tantrum and slam her head into the floor over and over. She and her sister are 13 months apart, and yet she has never wanted to interact with her, even though you would expect these two to be close because of their age, she never wanted anything to do with her and would play in the same room but not with her. As she got older her disconnect to the people around her continued, if she couldn’t read or do her math she would throw a tantrum and throw her head into the wall over and over again, she has empathy but it is selective. She has love for me, her father, and sister, but that is about it. She makes friends and then after a week or a couple months she decides that person is terrible and she ends the friendship. She has an above average IQ, but she doesn’t want to finish anything she starts. She has depression, but its more because she is down about the voices, and down about not meeting her own expectations.

    She does not feel things that most people feel. An example is that where we may feel compassion, she doesn’t, its not because she doesn’t want to, she says she doesn’t even think about it. She said today when she had her major meltdown; of her sister, wh0 immediately came to her defense ready to kill the boy who had harassed her and given her the rope to go over the edge, that she knew she would do that, but doing that for her sister in return, would never “occur” to her. Yet, she is not a bad kid, its like she is shut off in a way that the rest of us are not, and having the voices, and the paranoia that you are being watched constantly just makes it worse.

    • Marty
      Posted August 16, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

      I encourage all people with loved ones with mental illnesses to look at the website and find your local affiliate of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Families like you receive support and education about how to deal with these illnesses, which are possibly worse to deal with than cancer or diabetes. I, and many people like me, who had nowhere to turn, found help through NAMI. Most counties in the US have NAMI affiliates.

  7. Posted February 24, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    My 34 year old daughter has 3 children ages 9,8 and 5.Until 3 years ago she was an exemplary mother. Then a sudden change. Mood swings, lethargy, temper tantrums, poor choices, yelling and smacking the kids and all this I witnessed. The more I tried to intervene the worse she took it out on the children. I helped out as much as possible by taking the kids,keeping them overnite, helping financially and generally keeping my mouth shut when she raged irrationally at me for some misperceived slight. She’s been evicted. She lives on welfare and food stamps and doesn’t work. The boys attended an elementary school across the street from the apartment they live in last year. They were tardy 40 times and missed over 15 days of school. This year the boys attend a new school in my community ,which is 18 minutes from their apartment. This requires my daughter to get out of bed and drive the boys to school everyday in a very old,unreliable car. They are consistently 15-20 minutes late everyday. In December the kids were over for a sleepover. The boys spent three hours unsolicited telling me about the verbal abuse at home, the messy condition of the house, the car and running out of gas while driving places, no breakfast in the morning before school and how she would leave my then 4 yr old granddaughter at home sleeping everyday when she drove the boys to school. They begged to come live with me and said ‘Dad can come see us Tuesdays and Thursdays’ . And then my dear little nine year old looked up at me and said and ‘then mom can get her head together’. I believe she has an undiagnosed mental illness. I am bipolar myself. But I am diligent about seeing my psychiatrist and maintaining my medications. I have been symptom free for over 10 years. Plus my daughter was supposedly diagnosed with fibromyalgia and was perscribed vicodan. It may also be substance abuse. Anyway, it was a hard decision but with my granddaughter being left alone in the mornings and all the boys told me,plus what I’d been witnessing for 3 years I had no choice but to call Child Protective Services. The grandcchildrens’ welfare was the primary priority. My daughter would not listen to me. I cry as I write this. Because of course she has cut off all communication and I can’t have the kids at my house. I have been volunteering at the boys’ school and I see them everyday. Teachers constantly telling ‘they were late, no homework, I can’t get a hold of your daughter., she hasn’t sent supplies needed and I sent 2 notes home..etc” I just tell them to inform the guidance counselor so she can document all this. CPS I feel is doing very little to help. My heart is breaking and I know she is so irrational that she will never get help or listen to anything I may say…even an apology. Dad is of no help at all in this whole scenario. Thank you for listening out there.

    • Chrstine
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      I feel your pain. My ex-husband is untreated bipolar and my 19 y/o son has had mental health issues for a few years. Having a severely mentally ill loved one is an awful existence. My qualifiers are as bad as it gets. I do not have any answers. I too have been consumed by the problem. The only thing that helps is prayer. When I wake up during the night I say the rosary to block out the thoughts that keep me awake. I struggle to concentrate on saying the same prayers over and over and this eventually relaxes me. Sometimes I need to repeat the rosary if I am not relaxed at the end of one. I believe it is the meditative effect of forcing concentration on saying the prayer correctly and completely. So I realize this might not be for you but it was all I had to contribute. Thank you for sharing. It is a very isolating problem.

    • Posted April 17, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      I’m happy to see that I’m not the only parent lost. My story is heart breaking. My (very) bi-polar husband passed away at 52 from an apparent drug over dose. Sadly, drug abuse is common with bi-polar. I have a daughter (34) from a previous relationship that hates me for staying with my husband and having 2 more children which both have been diagnosed, one with depressive and the other with mixed mania. And let me tell you, those two can fight with each other like I have never seen. Because my husband was so ill, I tried very hard to keep the kids as protected from his rages as possible. I was always alone with the kids, weddings, work events, beach trips…you name it…I was alone. Knowing the two younger kids were also bi-polar I didn’t want them to think no one would love or stay with them being mentally ill and by leaving their father I would possibly lead them to believe this. So I stayed. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my husband very much. And still do. Things are so messed up that I’m not sure there is a light at the end of my tunnel. The kids are now 34, 26 and 21. Unless I am giving them money they don’t even waste their time talking to me. The 26 yr old has my 7 yr old grand daughter and even tho I raised her til 3 1/2 (she came and took her while I was at work) she refuses to allow me to see her now. She tells her terrible things about me trying to ruin the relationship we did have. While my son (the 21 yr old) is now in my home and I am taking a very well deserved vacation, he has moved some guy into my home (no clue who) and guess he is living in my bedroom. My son has told me not to ever come back. I have no one to talk to because no one understands. If I wrote a book they would put it in the fiction section as no one could believe what bi-polar has done to us. I was laid off (job of 23 yrs), home foreclosed, husband died, no insurance and no way to get the help I know I now need. I love my children very much. Trying to protect them has cost me my life. And I would do it again for their futures. I just want them happy so I will walk away….as parents, we all do the best we can. I’m lost, lonely, and extremely heart broken. Trying to raise a house full of bi-polar proved that I was not equipped for the job. I talked endlessly to professionals who repeated suggested I leave my husband. I just couldn’t. I married for sickness or health. And meant it. But who’s helping me????

  8. Elke Meixner
    Posted February 1, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Honestly Josh, I am a mentally ill daughter. But your insinuation about “good parents” is something I dont agree with. If i had had “good parents” they would have been “there” for me to help me with life problems. And not dismiss me like they did and not take interest. My parents were so full of their own problems, that they had not time for me or my concerns. I cannot tell you how often I turned to them for support and was just “ignored” and deserted. My mom suffered from depression and homesickness when we immigrated to the USA. She was a bundle of misery, I often tried to sooth her.

    I dont agree with your view of things.

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