What to do while waiting for help that actually helps your teenager is an important lesson to learn, because chances are you’ll have to wait. And while you wait, your teenager’s depression may get worse.
At least that’s what happened with my daughter. She went from acknowledging she felt depressed and asking for help to actively wanting to die in about four months. It was fast. Faster than I ever could have imagined. And getting help took far longer.
Having bounced around from one health care provider to another, and from one antidepressant to the next for several years, here are my top five tips for what to do while waiting for help that actually helps.
1. Keep a journal
Start it as soon as you’re aware your child is having problems because details and dates become fuzzy and skewed by emotion. Record changes in behaviour and frequency and duration of episodes. It’s also helpful to record medications and doses. Take it to appointments and be sure to get the names and contact information of any professionals you’ve been in touch with, because I can guarantee you, these things will get lost in the moment.
2. Keep your child at the centre of things
Mental health providers will talk about typical symptoms and behaviour related to depression, but you know your child better than anyone. My daughter has always been very high functioning, even when she’s severely depressed. I know this now. I didn’t at first and so I missed signs of depression in her for months. While online guides and doctors can tell you how depression usually manifests itself, remind yourself who you’re dealing with. Use the checklists as guideposts, but keep your child’s unique nature at the centre of the things and trust your gut.
3. Seek different types of help at the same time
For some reason, I approached getting help in a linear fashion. I went to our family doctor, who suggested a therapist, who suggested a psychiatrist, who eventually suggested the emergency room. You can seek different health care providers at the same time. Talk therapy is great, but it may not be enough. Rather than wait to find out if antidepressants were necessary, I wish I had requested a referral to a psychiatrist right off the bat because psychiatrists are in high demand. If you find you don’t need their services in the end, you can easily remove your name from the waitlist. Likewise, you can use services such as the What’s Up Walk-In Clinics to fill the gaps between appointments.
4. Be a vocal connector
As a newbie to the mental health care system, I very dutifully got in line, confident that we had been triaged accordingly. I didn’t understand that new referrals go to the bottom of a giant pile. Or that the emergency room really was a legitimate step in getting help, not just for acute emergencies. As you ping-pong from one trained professional to another, it’s up to you to connect the dots. Make sure you update all the professionals you’ve seen on your progress and alert them to any changes in your child’s health. Your updates may prompt them to try to move you up the list or suggest an alternate solution. They may also see something you don’t.
5. Know what constitutes an emergency
Professionals will tell you to go to emergency if your child is in crisis or at risk of self-harm, but what exactly is a crisis in the case of depression? It’s hard to tell if your teenager is cutting to ease their pain or depressed enough, for long enough, that they don’t want to live. While I was regularly asking my daughter if she felt at risk to herself, I should have been asking more specific questions. The Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale can help you identify a potentially life-threatening situation. There are six questions. If your child answers yes to questions 4, 5 and 6, take them to emergency. The Association for Children’s Mental Health in Michigan also has a good guide to identifying and handling a crisis situation.
Have more tips for what to do while you wait? Please share them in the comments below.