As part of Speak Up for Kids, an initiative led by Child Mind Institute to provide the public with information about children's mental health, The Huffington Post will be running a series of stories about families whose children have been diagnosed with mental health conditions.
Here, in her own words, Maryam, 46, talks about getting help for her 15-year-old daughter, Natasha, who has battled anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Witnessing a tragedy
When Natasha was in fourth grade, there was a suicide at her school. A kid in the 11th grade leapt to his death from the 11th story on the sidewalk where the fourth graders were playing. Most of them had already moved inside, but Natasha ended up being one of the kids who was facing the window when he fell.
The school went into lockdown and brought some therapists in, who sent a form home to all the parents. After, we got a call from one of them saying, "We think your daughter has PTSD." And I asked, "Well, what should I be doing?" They said she should go to a therapist.
We had actually already started sending her to a therapist before we got that call, because for a month or two my husband and I had noticed that things were off. Loud noises would startle her ... One time, her brother was coughing and she got in this total panic, we had to stop the car. Or we'd get on a plane and she would grip my hand like she thought we were all going to die. She didn't really talk about the suicide with her therapist -- it wasn't something she talked about openly at all. But she seemed to be managing better, so I think it all just kind of laid dormant for a while. It didn't come back until other things surfaced for her in middle school, when mean-girl stuff started happening, too.
Refusing to leave
In seventh grade, Natasha started refusing to go to school. At that point, she was 5'7" and there's no making someone [that size] do it. She started seeing the same therapist again, who kind of said to us, "Your daughter has anxiety, be understanding" ... It was much more of a coddling response, which I just thought must be the right answer. How did I know? So we were understanding, we said, "Well, just do your homework." And she's such a good student, her school didn't even notice that she had missed 35 days of school in a semester.
Around that time, we also began cognitive therapy and switched her medication. She eventually started going to a school refusal specialist, although we waited on that for a while, and I wish we hadn't. You don't know what you don't know.
Things changed so much for me in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, when I started seeing a therapist. Natasha was at sleep-away camp and she really wanted to come home. The therapist was really good at saying, "You need to teach her to push through. Why don't we see if she can push through?" And she was able to.
At the end of the summer before eighth grade, Natasha was really working with the school refusal therapist, who was much more cut and dried. She told us that we needed to be firmer. If she didn't go to school, here's what's going to happen: There's no TV, no computer, because otherwise, of course she'd prefer to stay home. I would say the spring of eighth grade was the worst. It's not like we had a babysitter at home, and my husband and I both work, but someone had to be there and be like a warden. Some days we'd have to call into work and say, "I'm not going to be able to make it." My sister also helped a lot, and we eventually found a babysitter and some friends who could, too. But she pushed back and fought. It was not pleasant.
We also started looking for other schools, because we thought it would be helpful to her. We applied to a few arts schools, which were so different than where she had been and she did get a spot. I was so proud of her. She had this terrible night before the audition, she was so anxious, but when we got there she went in on her own, and had me wait outside, and did it.
Now she's a freshman at the new school. She's still on medication -- she's been on for about a year -- and she still sees the school refusal therapist, although now it's not so much about school refusal as having someone she trusts who she feels like she can talk to. Sometimes she goes once a month, sometimes once a week. It ebbs and flows.
We didn't even focus on the suicide and the role it's played in her life until this year, really -- until she wrote this blog post [for HuffPost Teen]. I was startled by how willing she was to share her full story, and I give her a lot of credit for wanting to help other people, partly because she felt so isolated before. I didn't realize how much.
The thing you realize with mental health is that there's no easy fix. Initially there was no diagnosis, and then people said "anxiety" -- but you realize anxiety is a very broad term. It moves around, and it's never that clean. Refusing to go to school affected her friendships, which compounded the anxiety. One thing leads to the next, and the next -- you're never solving for just one thing.
But Natasha is in a much better place. Her new school is such a different environment: It's creative, and the kids are so talented and accepting. There's a lot of joy in the halls. She's a teenager now, so a lot of this journey is really about her, and how active she is going to be about managing issues as they come up. While I would not have wished this on Natasha, she's learned at a young age what it means to be resilient.
My best advice for parents is to take care of yourself. You can't really rely on friends or relatives or parents to help, not because they don't try, but because they don't understand anxiety, or they think, "Why can't you just get her to go to school?" Going to a therapist, a professional who said, "No, don't do this," or "Call this person," I just felt blessed. It took me over a year to do it, because I thought, "I don't have the time, it'll just be another thing I have to juggle." But my advice is to give yourself that break. Because it's a journey.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.