I have worked at Seattle Children’s for 16 years and have been the Chief of Critical Care Medicine since 2013. My son Peter just turned 17. He recently “celebrated” his birthday at a therapeutic boarding school where he is in residential treatment for anxiety and depression. Although he was in and out of outpatient therapy for several years and was hospitalized at the Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit (PBMU) for severe depression at age 13, I rarely discussed his mental health with my colleagues. Most of the people I worked with regularly were unaware that coping with Peter’s anxiety and depression was part of my daily life. I used to think it was something private to keep to myself. However, I now realize it was my inability to address my own fear that kept me silent. I retreated into my job, and, at work, I could be the confident physician and ICU leader rather than the uncertain, anxious parent who didn’t know how to help his struggling son.
As a toddler, Peter was happy, cheerful and made friends easily. He thrived in the closely-knit structure of a home with a stay-at-home mom and a few close playmates. With the transition to school and the rapid-fire new experiences, new people and unpredictability inherent in large groups of children, Peter manifested anxiety beginning in kindergarten and began to show more depressive symptoms in middle school. Finding help for him was difficult. Getting him a sleep study, an otolaryngologist consult and tonsillectomy surgery for sleep apnea was easy. Identifying a therapist for a depressed and anxious 13-year-old and getting him to go was hard. My asking for help was even harder.
With the help of the PBMU team, we found a good psychiatrist and Peter did better for a while. Unfortunately, the transition to high school presented new challenges, and we struggled as a family to find new solutions. My wife and I couldn’t easily get on the same page in how to support Peter’s care, and he became more distant. I avoided addressing issues with him because I didn’t want to provoke conflict or arguments. Peter retreated more into his private world, stopped attending school and rarely left the house. Through all of this, I escaped even more into my work and became more isolated myself. I really didn’t know what do or where to turn. Thankfully, my wife persisted in seeking help for him, asking anyone and everyone for ideas. Ultimately, we got him into a wilderness treatment program and then to a therapeutic boarding school. Peter is doing much better. He is back in school, getting good grades, and looking ahead to college. Most importantly, he is openly talking about his feelings.
The process of getting on board with his therapy plan required me to transform my whole approach. I needed to ask my colleagues for help with time off and schedule changes to participate in family therapy. I needed to ask for and listen to advice and recommendations from Peter’s care team. I needed to collaborate with his therapists and care team and to engage in my own therapy work. I needed to change my relationship with my job to enable my availability for my family.
A big benefit is that most people I work with are now aware that I am actively engaged in supporting my son’s mental health. Colleagues, both close and distant, have shared their similar family or parenting experiences with me. The shared experience has been inspiring. I value the check-ins from people on how things are going and now welcome the questions about how Peter is doing rather than shying away from the topic. I am beginning to build a support community within my work community that is tremendously comforting.
Mental health really needs to be as visible and as “normal” as physical health issues. Coping with a child struggling with mental health should be something we can safely share as much as asthma or diabetes. There is a long way to go to achieve this, but I am grateful that Seattle Children’s has made mental and behavioral health as one of its key strategic initiatives.
If you, your child or family needs help right away, call your county’s mental health crisis number. In King County, call 866-427-4747. You can also text HOME to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, from anywhere in the U.S. If you or a family member has a problem with a substance use disorder, please consider calling the Washington Recovery Help Line, 866-789-1511.