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When a Child Has Mental Illness

Sad young man sitting on a floor against a wall with his head down

Three of our four children deal with mental illness. We face it day by day, but we have no answers. No guarantees. Nothing to assure us that everything will turn out OK.

I can still picture the 13-year-old boy with a round tummy and too-small blue shirt, singing loudly along with me.

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders / Let me walk upon the waters, wherever You would call me …

I bellowed out the song – off-key, I’m sure – mercifully accompanied by the music emanating from my phone.

You call me out upon the waters / the great unknown where feet may fail / And there I find in You the mystery / in oceans deep, my faith will stand

A dozen teenagers sang along, gathered in the conference room of a psychiatric residential facility.

Your grace abounds in deepest waters / Your sovereign hand will be my guide

This place was one step shy of juvie for some of these kids. The boy wearing the blue shirt, for example, was at the facility because he wasn’t safe to live in a family setting.

Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander / And my faith will be made stronger, in the presence of my Savior

The group gathered around me included kids struggling with self-harm, suicidality, violence, sexual acting out and countless other symptoms of trauma and mental illness. Together we clung to the words.

Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me / You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

I was there to visit my daughter. She lives there. My beautiful teenager, who will always be my baby girl to me, has genetic and debilitating mental illness.

So I will call upon Your name / And keep my eyes above the waves / When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace / for I am Yours and You are mine

A Holy Moment

It was one of the most sacred and holy moments of my life, and I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. My daughter and I had been hanging around, just visiting with the staff and other residents in the hallway, and now we were in this conference room, enjoying an impromptu worship service.

Other teens heard the singing and ran in to join along. Along with “Oceans,” we sang “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.” And instead of being mortified that her mom was singing church songs with her peers, my girl stood right next to me and sang along.

My daughter has lived in this residential facility for the last six months because she’s unsafe to live at home. There are staff members here who really love my daughter, and I can never explain what a gift it is to have people who genuinely care about and care for your child when they are too ill to live at home. I speak to them almost every night when I call to talk with my girl.

When we were done singing, I reminded the kids to be very respectful of the staff, so as not to give our worship service a bad name. And they were.

Afterward, things returned to our version of normal for my daughter and her mental health challenges. She lives many miles from home because in my state there are too many kids with mental health needs and not enough services to meet them. So we call her every night. We visit every month. We pray for her progress. We tell her we love her. We tell her we’ll never leave her or give up on her. We try to demonstrate that there’s nothing she can do to hinder our love. We set healthy boundaries and pray that she will, too.

Our hearts continue to break that progress comes slowly after so many years trying to manage her mental health issues at home. We continue to rely on professionals to help bring her to stability from a medical and psychological perspective. And we continue to call on the One who is her Savior to heal her and use her pain – and ours – to help others.

But we have no answers. No guarantees. Nothing to assure us that this will all turn out OK.

Visiting Hour

Oh God, please help me, I groaned inwardly, drowning in fear. We’d just finished a visit with our 17-year-old son, currently living in an acute psychiatric facility after he experienced a complete and very dangerous psychotic break at home.

He heard voices and saw people telling him to kill himself. He held a knife to his throat. His psychiatrist says it’s a dump of dopamine in his limbic system, but whatever it is, it almost took his life … again.

This dear son, the oldest of our four children, was – like his siblings – also adopted from foster care. Like three of our four children, he also has mental illness; genetically based schizophrenia in his case. He has recurring visions of animals and people who aren’t real. But those figments aren’t a big deal (never thought I would say that) – they’re actually quite benign, even comforting, to this son of ours who is as kind and generous as the day is long.

It’s when the dangerous commanding audio and visual hallucinations appear that he is tormented … and a danger to himself. So after years in psychiatric hospitals and residential facilities, after multiple psychiatrists and therapists and treatments, we are back here again.

Long-term stability seems out of reach at this point, and my poor baby boy (who is now a 220-pound man) can’t take it anymore. So after an hour of encouragement and prayer and hugs and tears and “hang on, we aren’t giving up,” visiting hour is over and we get up to form our lines to leave.

I hug him hard and tight, look deep in his eyes as I try to give him hope. He’s so weary from years of this. We’re all so weary.

“Mom, I love you so much and I’m so sorry,” he tells me, “but I’m going to kill myself tonight.”

Panic grips my chest.

He’s almost killed himself before while in a psychotic and dissociative state, but God has always mercifully spared him. Staff arriving just in time, checking him earlier than scheduled, saving his life – more times than I can count. I look into his eyes, the eyes I’ve loved since I held him close as a drug-addicted baby, and I can tell that he’s what I call suicide-determined.

I panic some more. I need to warn the staff. They have to watch him closely. I’ve never seen him quite like this. He can’t take any more anguish, any more mental torture – of course he can’t. I couldn’t either in that moment.

I’m calm and loving on the outside, holding him close. But on the inside I’m hysterical. Panic-stricken. And that’s when I’m reminded, very clearly, that God’s even bigger and stronger than my son’s momentary determination to end his own suffering. God gives me a lightness of spirit even in that darkest of places.

Living in Today

As I shuffled out of the psychiatric hospital that night, as I’ve done hundreds of time over the last few years, I made sure to check and double-check with the staff as I always do, and then get back to the business of my own survival with my merciful and faithful Jesus.

I live only in today, not focusing on the still-unknown futures of my children with mental illness who will become adults with mental illness.

I ask God to help me develop “ruthless trust” as author Brennan Manning coined it – trust in His goodness, His sufficiency, His love for me and my children.

I ask Him to help me resist my impulse to escape all this suffering through unhealthy coping.

Most of all, I ask Him to use all this pain and brokenness to help others who suffer from the horror of mental illness – to help those who suffer and the families who suffer with them to know they are not alone. You, Lord, are with them. And may Your church be with them, too.

And I hum the words of a familiar song:

You’ve never failed and You won’t start now …  


Kelly Rosati is vice president of Advocacy for Children at Focus on the Family.

If you or someone you know is struggling with the impact of mental illness on family relationships, Focus on the Family has a staff of licensed professional counselors available who would welcome the opportunity to speak with you. Simply call 855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays between 6 a.m. and p.m. (Mountain Time) and a Family Help Center staff member will set up a free phone consult.

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