Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her most recent book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, was published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

Sure, Let's Talk -- But Let's Invest, Too!

bltd-logo.jpg

Today is Bell Let's Talk Day in Canada -- a day devoted to having frank and open conversations about mental health. It's a day when people share stories of their own experiences with mental illness: the triumphs and the struggles. 

I've been a passionate supporter of Bell Let's Talk Day over the years because I think the campaign has done an amazing job of getting people talking about mental health.

#BellLetsTalk conversations on Twitter were what inspired me to first speak openly about my own struggles with bipolar disorder. 

And, this year, I'm hoping we can ramp up the impact of these all-important conversations by using #BellLetsTalk Day as an excuse to broaden the conversation. Specifically, I am hoping that we can use it as an opportunity to reach out to our elected officials -- the very people responsible for ensuring that there are adequate services in place in our communities to support people in need of mental health diagnosis and treatment.

Because here's the thing: it's not okay to encourage people to talk about mental health -- and then leave them in the lurch when it comes to actually accessing treatment. And yet that's happening far too often across this country -- because government investment has failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing demand for services.

This past year, I have watched a member of my own family struggle to obtain access to mental health care. What I've learned is that

  1. You have to be incredibly persistent to obtain access to care. You have to be willing to be the squeaky wheel which, if you think about it, is a pretty major burden to put on a person who is already struggling. 
  2. You have to be incredibly lucky -- lucky enough to live in a community where timely access to mental health treatment is available. I don't think it should come down to luck. (There have been times when I thought my family's luck was going to run out: that it wouldn't be possible to help a family member in trouble to access care soon enough. And that's a terrible feeling.) 

So here's my plea to you on Bell Let's Talk Day, 2018.

Please take a moment to write to your MPP to urge them to make mental health funding a priority this year. Or, if you prefer, call his/her office and ask for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issue. And, while you're making a plea for more mental health investment in general, please take a moment to spotlight the chronic underfunding of child/youth mental health services and the terrible cost of such shortsightedness. 

As I have learned through my volunteer work with Children's Mental Health Ontario's #kidscantwait campaign, we're actually losing ground when it comes to investing in the mental health of children and youth -- this despite the fact that requests for services are skyrocketing and the impact on families is immeasurable. 

Bottom line? We can do better and we must do better. 

So, sure. Let's keep talking.

But let's start investing, too -- in mental health care for every Canadian who needs it.
 

Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm and the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio.

Ann and Kim's Amazing Back-to-School Adventure

back-to-school-parenting-special-needs

Wondering what you can do to make this the best possible school year for yourself and your child (to say nothing of your child’s teacher, too)? We’ve got a roundup of practical, parent-proven suggestions to pass along—a straightforward and simple five-step back-to-school plan. 

And just in case you're wondering who the "we" is (because I usually write the content on this blog on my own), I teamed up with Kim Peterson to create the content for this special back-to-school parenting guide. Kim is one of the co-creators of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap. If you're following her on Twitter, you already know what an amazing source of support and information she is for parents who have a child with special needs.

But enough about us! You’re here to pick up some tips on minimizing the stress of back-to-school. Here is our quick-and-easy 5-step plan for making the most of this fun-but-busy time of year. (And, if you'd prefer to listen in on the audio version of this conversation, you'll find it right here via SoundCloud.)

Step One: Get Connected

Connect with your child. Start out by having a back-to-school conversation with your child. Find out what's on his mind as he thinks ahead to the coming school year. What is he looking forward to? Does he have any worries/concerns? Is there anything you could be talking about or working through together?

Connect with his teacher. Make contact with your child’s teacher as soon as possible during the school year—sooner, if you can swing it. Let her know that you’re eager to work with her to make this a great school year for all concerned. Provide her with a one-page document highlighting strategies that work well with your child and providing her with other need-to-know information upfront. It’s great to be able to make a connection with the teacher and to identify some common ground as early in the school year as possible.

Connect with your community. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child’s parent. Tap into some of that support for yourself so that you can continue to be a powerful advocate on behalf of your child. "Build your support circle," says Kim. "Become familiar with your school board’s SEAC (Special Education Advisory Committee), parent council, SERT (Special Education Resource Teacher), principal, teachers, educational assistant, education advocates, doctors, therapists, school parents’ association, and so on." And don't try to carry all this information around in your head. Write it down so that you can access it quickly and easily when you need it. 

Step Two: Get Organized

Start out by organizing yourself. Don't leave all your back-to-school preparation to the last minute. That will only add to your stress level. Instead, chip away at the various items on your back-to-school to do list (picking up back-to-school supplies; visiting the school) at a more manageable pace. And be sure to set aside some time to create or update a binder that will allow you to advocate effectively for your child. Be sure to include copies of your child's IEP, treatment plans, communication logs (documenting your various conversations with treatment providers and/or your child's school) as well as a copy of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap. 

Then help your child to get organized, too. Help your child to adjust to the before-school and after-school routines before he is faced with the first day of school. Walk through the routine on a regular basis during the final weeks of summer holidays so that he'll know what to expect when the school year actually begins. Doing this can help to ease the anxiety your child may be experiences as he transitions to something new. "Consider making a visual schedule to hang up on the refrigerator so that everyone in the house is aware," suggests Kim. "You can also create a social story if your child responds to that better." You might also want to set aside time to visit the schoolyard, to allow your child to start to feel familiar with that environment, and/or to reconnect with schoolmates and arrange a few playdates in the lead-up to school.

Step Three: Get Calm

Get calm yourself and then help your child to get and stay calm, too. Kim suggests practicing mindfulness ("Having a clear, positive mind is what you need to start the new school year") and making self-care a priority for yourself and your child. Her best advice? Make a self-care wall to outline strategies that work for you when you're feeling anxious, exhausted, or depressed. Better yet, map out some of these strategies on a document you can carry with you in your smartphone or in your agenda so that you can tap into these strategies when (not if!) the going gets tough. And do the same for your child, too. Help him to identify the strategies that work best for him and then figure out how he can access these strategies in a flash when he needs them.

Step Four: Get Pumped

The start of a new school year is an exciting time—and you’ll find it easier to cope with any curveballs if you embark on the year in a positive state of mind. That means feeling confident about your ability to support and advocate on your child's behalf. And it means committing to do the hard work of relationship maintenance.

First of all, it's important to own the expertise that you possess as your child's parent: to recognize that you are the true expert when it comes to your child. Don’t be afraid to share your best insights into and observations about what will work best for him at school out of some misguided fear that you have less expertise to offer than your child's teachers. Don’t sell yourself short. Recognize that you have a deep knowledge and understanding of your child that can benefit your child’s teachers (and him) in all kinds of ways.

Secondly, model good problem-solving and relationship maintenance skills for your child. Curveballs are inevitable. It’s all about knowing how to handle them. That means teaching your child how to respond to frustrations in ways that encourage other people to want to help him: assuming the best of the other person, taking a solutions-orienting approach, asking for help/support from others, and so on. Remind yourself (and him) that relationships take work: and that preventing problems is preferable to having to manage the fallout after the fact. Keep the lines of communication open, express appreciation, and try to anticipate and head off problems. When problems do arise, deal with them early (as opposed to allowing them to snowball) and, if a relationship hits a rough spot, commit to doing the hard work involved in relationship repair. 

Step Five: Get Informed

Commit to learning more. Expose yourself to as much information as you can about dealing with your child’s challenges and capitalizing upon his strengths. Knowledge is power! Download a copy of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap. Pick up a copy of Ann's book Parenting Through the Storm (a guide to parenting a child who is struggling). And tap into the countless other resources available to you as the parent of a child who has special needs. You don't have to do this on your own. 
 

Is there a tip you’d like to share with us—so that we can then share it with other parents? Is there a resource you think other parents would want to know about? Is there a topic you'd like us to tackle in a future blog post or audio tip sheet? Let us know. We'd love to hear from you.
 

Ann Douglas is a mom of four and the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She is also CBC Radio’s weekend parenting columnist. She shares parenting and mental health resources on Twitter @anndouglas.

Kim Peterson is a mom of two including a child with autism. She is also one of the co-creators of the Ontario Special Needs Roadmap which has been downloaded over 70,000 times since it was released two years ago. She's also the brains behind the very popular @ONTSpecialNeeds Twitter account. 

It's That Time of Year Again: Bell Let's Talk 2016

bell-lets-talk-2016.jpg

Participating in Bell Let's Talk has become somewhat of an annual tradition for me over the years. I love the way this powerful campaign sparks important conversations about mental health. And, the timing (late January) is great. (Winter blahs, anyone?) So I'll be part of the online conversation on January 27 and beyond (mainly on Twitter because I'm very much a Twitter person). And I'll be volunteering behind the scenes as a speaker at three Bell Let's Talk events in Toronto, Mississauga, and Ottawa. (See my workshop calendar for details about the Ottawa event, a fundraising breakfast on behalf of the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa which is open to members of the public.)

Bell Let's Talk recently interviewed me about my reasons for being involved with the campaign. This is what I had to say:


What inspired you to get involved in mental health advocacy?

I got involved in mental health advocacy because I wanted to let people know that it’s possible to have a mental illness and to have a great life. You don’t have to choose one or the other. 

I have learned this through personal experience—both as a person who lives with bipolar disorder herself and as a person whose family members have also grappled with a number of mental health challenges—and who are currently thriving. 

I think it’s important to get this message out so that people don’t end up feeling terrified or defeated if they—or someone they love—is diagnosed with a mental illness. A diagnosis is simply a piece of information about you. It doesn’t begin to define you and it certainly doesn’t have to limit you. It is possible to live well while you’re living with a mental illness.

 

What has been the most difficult challenge as a parent of a child with mental illnesses?

There are so many things that are hard about being the parent of a child with a mental illness. You feel stressed and overwhelmed. You feel unsure about what you can do to help. You worry about your child. You feel lonely and alone. You feel frustrated and angry. You feel sad that life is so difficult for your child. You feel so many things, and sometimes you feel all of these things at the same time. 

But one of the hardest things is feeling like you and your child are being judged by people who don’t understand what it’s like to be a child who is struggling with a mental illness—or what it’s like to be that child’s parent. People need to understand that having a child who is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent—just as being a child who is struggling doesn’t make your child a bad kid. 

 

If you could send one message to parents with a similar lived experience to your own, what would it be?

Self-care isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. You can’t put your own life and happiness on hold until some future day when your child is no longer struggling. You need to do the hard work of taking good care of yourself and finding joy in your life right now, even if your child happens to be going through a really tough time. This doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. You can feel really sad about the difficulties that your child is experiencing and you can allow yourself to experience happiness in your life, starting right now. 

So don’t feel guilty for doing things that give you pleasure, like meeting a friend for a cup of coffee or going for a walk on a beautiful day. Practicing good self-care isn’t just a gift that you give yourself. It’s a gift that you give to your child, too, because a child who is struggling needs and deserves the strongest, healthiest parent possible. 

 

What does your support network look like when your family is facing challenges?

It looks and feels like a family that is being enveloped in a blanket of caring. We are so, so lucky….

For starters, I have three great sisters who are incredibly helpful and resourceful—the very type of people you want to have in your court when you’re feeling frightened and overwhelmed. They have been there for me—and they have been there for my kids—on countless occasions. 

I am also really lucky to have three close friends who have been through similar experiences with their kids. They have been incredible sources of support and wisdom to me over the years. My friend Darlene meets me for lunch and listens to me talk about my worries and frustrations. My friend Lori sends me e-mails of support from across the miles. And my friend (and cousin!) Karen checks in with me by phone if I go too long without e-mailing her to let her know how I’m really doing. I am so grateful for the love and support I have received from these three wonderful women that I dedicated my book Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between to the three of them. The dedication reads, “To Darlene, Karen, and Lori: For lunches, phone calls, and emails when I needed them most—at the height of the storm.”

And that is just touching the tip of the iceberg, in terms of highlighting the depth and breadth of the support my family has received over the years. So many people have rallied to our side when we needed them. I’m thinking about my friend Bridget, who arrived in the middle of the night to stay with our three boys when our daughter had to be rushed to hospital—and how our next-door neighbor David brought us endless cups of coffee in the aftermath of our recent house fire. (But that’s a whole other story!)

 

Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for parents who are seeking support?

Remind yourself that there are people out there who aren’t merely willing to help, but who are actually eager to help. People derive a lot of joy and satisfaction from helping other people. It’s the way we’re wired as humans. So don’t deprive another person of the pleasure that comes from helping your family in your time of need. Simply look forward to being able to pay this kindness forward to some other family in some other way at some other time. Bottom line? You don’t have to do this on your own. Let people know what you need and be willing to accept that help. Embrace this aspect of being human.

Mental Health Advocacy Award: Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere

mental-health-award.jpg

It's been a pretty exciting week for me.

On Tuesday night, the Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere (FAME) inducted me into their mental health advocacy Hall of Fame in recognition of my "contributions to the community's understanding of mental illness" and "untiring advocacy around mental health issues." Past inductees into the FAME Hall of Fame include former Ontario Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman, journalist and author Scott Simmie, mental health advocate Karen Lieberman, mental health advocate Lembi Buchanan, mental health advocate Al Birney, and filmmaker Stuart Clarefield

The Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere offers support to families who have a loved one who is struggling with a mental health challenge. They serve families across the Greater Toronto Area and Peel Region through their offices in Etobicoke, Scarborough, Brampton, and Mississauga. "We believe families make up the basic social structure of our society," the organization's website notes. "Family members provide ongoing support and connection for many of our life experiences. This is particularly true for persons who are vulnerable or ill....As an organization brought together by families, we have a thorough understanding of the challenges and emotions experienced in supporting a family member with a mental illness....[We] works hard to ensure that families have a strong voice within the communities. We are based on a self-help model which respects and supports the expertise that families have regarding their mentally ill relative and their experience in the system."

Thank you, FAME -- both for taking the time to recognize my mental health advocacy work and for the truly life-changing work you have been doing in support of families for over 25 years.

Photos from the event.

"We Were Lucky"

On an otherwise ordinary early summer evening, my then-12-year-old daughter retreated to her bedroom and took a massive dose of extra-strength Tylenol. She had been going through a very tough time at school and was looking for a way to numb the pain.
 
Through sheer good fortune, my husband and I managed to pick up on the fact that something was terribly wrong and to get her to the hospital in time.
 
That was the beginning of our mental health journey as a family — a journey that could have just as easily ended in tragedy that night.
 
I get a shiver down my spine as I type this: We were lucky. Very, very lucky. But parents shouldn't have to count on luck to keep their children safe. Not when we have so much knowledge about what is needed to prevent and treat mental health difficulties in children.  And not when our country has the financial resources to tackle this issue head-on.

Haven’t children and families waited long enough for Canada to get serious about investing in child and youth mental health? I think the answer is yes—which is why I am urging you to take a moment to write to your Member of Parliament to insist that some of Canada’s forecasted budget surplus be invested in child and youth mental health.
 
Partners for Mental Health has made it easy too: just complete the form here and a letter will be sent on your behalf. 
 
We need to get thousands of people raising their voices in order to send a strong signal that Canadians care about this issue.  We need to let them know that counting on luck isn’t good enough. Canadian children and families deserve better.

- Ann Douglas

Note: A copy of this letter has been sent to supporters of Partners for Mental Health, a mental health charity that is seeking to "transform the way Canadians think about, act towards and support mental health and people living with a mental illness." 



Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between (a guide to parenting a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge). She is also an engaging and inspiring speaker who sparks important conversations about parenting and mental health.