When my son was young, I never thought of mental health disorders. I looked at his behavior and asked what was different about him than my other children. I honestly did not need a name or a label for it. I recognized the differences and thought I could love and teach him what he needed to succeed in life. And I hoped and prayed each day that we could make it through the day happy and healthy and kind. But as our lives rapidly spiraled out of my control, I felt lost and panicked and very guilty; I felt like I was the worst person on the planet. My son committed a heinous crime when he was 16 years old and went to jail. Looking back, I thought about all the imperfect turns our lives had taken.  The path to a medical diagnosis, treatment, and after care for a physical ailment is fairly straightforward. However, mental health care does not follow the same path.

An emergency room visit for a heart attack has protocol and procedures that not only put you on the path for immediate care, but there are also systems in place to teach you about proper future care and treatments. If you take your child to the emergency room for a manic episode, it is not so simple. The myriad of causes, effects, and individual responses to mania make the path convoluted, confusing, and scary.  

What is a mental health diagnosis?

A mental health diagnosis is like a physical health diagnosis; you will have a name or label that considers your symptoms. The difference with a mental health diagnosis is that there are not many diagnostic tests to verify or nullify the diagnosis. A mental health diagnosis is oftentimes based on the information you can articulate for your provider. For some less common and more debilitating conditions, the process of diagnosis can be more complicated and take a significant amount of time.

Even though we had discussions about Sean’s behaviors with our pediatrician and later with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), there were never discussions of seeking a diagnosis or treatment. Every discussion was about how I needed to handle Sean’s behaviors and how I needed to be more strict and make him more compliant. I believed the assessment every time and assumed that everyone was correct. I was the problem.

Where can you get a mental health diagnosis?

When our lives were spiraling into a nightmare of court dates for truancy and meetings with the principal about his behavior, I became desperate. I asked everyone I could about where to find answers. I was finally directed to a place in Orem, Utah called The Utah Family Institute and asked for a psychological evaluation. We had had assessments before, but an evaluation is a long series of tests, interviews, and assessments that are evaluated and interpreted by a psychologist to determine a diagnosis.

What are the benefits of having a diagnosis?

When Sean’s doctor gave us the list of Sean’s diagnoses, she asked if we thought she was accurate in her assessment. It was a liberating experience to know that I could give her an example of all the symptoms she described. I just didn’t understand that they were symptoms of a mental disorder that has resources to help him and me learn to navigate his world. It would be years before I understood the significance of having that diagnosis; it clarified all the things that describe the way my son’s brain works.

What I failed to understand about the diagnosis is that even though there are many things we don’t understand about mental illness, there are many things we do understand. A diagnosis gives not only answers, but tools and support. The earlier you can get a diagnosis the more you are able to help your child with executive function skills and resiliency. Their lives are going to be challenging and every advantage they will have starts with helping them navigate the hurdles that a mental health disorder puts in front of them. Being able to navigate the challenges is the secret. One of the things that I like to tell parents who are in similar situations is that the earlier diagnosis–even though things were not in crisis yet–would have allowed us to develop better habits going into his teen years. When Sean received his diagnosis at 16, manic was normal. A parent never wants their child to interpret that mind madness as normal, but especially during the hormone-fed, impulsive teenage years.

We expect a person’s behavior to be completely under their control. Situations like trauma, neglect, and mental health disorders can make control illusive for individuals. Having a diagnosis opens the floodgates of resources and understanding. When we got our diagnosis, we felt like we had a team of people who could help: a psychiatrist for medication management, a psychologist for the diagnosis and interpretation of the evaluations, and a therapist, armed with the diagnosis from the evaluation, to help Sean navigate through the myriad of directions his mind is always traveling. Sean goes to group sessions that help him understand himself better. The more he learns about his diagnosis, the brighter his future feels.

What are the disadvantages to having a diagnosis?

The stigma about mental health disorders still exists and can cause discrimination or misunderstandings. This stigma can even come from within oneself in the form of a “label” that one uses as a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were many times when Sean was in a manic state of mind, and I tried to talk, bribe, or tease him out of his depression. Often I was causing more of the noise in his head and not helping at all. It has taken many years to learn what I can do to help him.

Many people in our lives tell us that the first thing we need to do is stop all of Sean’s medications. They believe that medications are bad for one’s health, or that they are an unnecessary crutch, or an annoyance to rely on a daily medication to simply feel good. Some assume the medications are causing more problems than they solve. To those people, I have to say, “SHHHHH!” You don’t know our journey or our pain. I will tell you this, my son smiles more on medication–real, honest smiles—than he ever did before the medication, therapy, and awareness. That is the measure of our lives–the smiles. While medication is not the answer for everyone, I have seen many people suffer unnecessarily because they assume that the medications are worse than the diagnosis. 

The future is bright.

Wherever you are on the path of mental wellness, I have a few words of encouragement. Do not fear the diagnosis. In our case, ignorance almost cost a man his life. Information is power. Keep an open mind about medication. Be kind to yourself and to your loved ones. It is a bumpy road, but not impassable. There are many options, and research is coming up with new information rapidly. Stay tuned for my blog post next  January 2024 on my experience with Sean’s medication management.



3 Responses

  1. First words that come to mind, I love you Charlotte, I love your vulnerability. That takes strength. (I also love Brene Brown 🤗). Thank you for sharing your story. You ARE so beautiful.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sure it’s hard to share, but I know it will help others to hear what you’ve learned.

  3. I love you and Sean.
    As Sean’s teacher in that double wide classroom, I only saw a driven, brilliant, self-motivated young man who worked harder and faster through the all of the core subjects to gain credit recovery.
    Being that it was my first year of working with teens after leaving 15 years as an adult trainer in the corporate world, I equated Sean’s intensity to flying through the credit recovery packets as an example to so many other students who had no motivation.
    My opinion only: Sean was bullied, provoked, feed hateful untruths by three teens to do their dirty work. I witnessed the sociopathic diatribe that these three boys used to manipulate Sean, while they all knew his weakness.
    Fifteen years later, I am still furious that they used Sean as a scapegoat.

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