Parents: Mental health lessons

Parents of young adults may feel helpless


The deadly shooting in Tucson,
Arizona, last week should remind families of the importance of getting help for
troubled children, mental health experts say. But parents of young adults
struggling with mental illness may feel helpless to help them, even once a
problem has been diagnosed.

You can’t force them to see a
doctor, or even to follow up on their treatment or medication.

Hearing about the Tucson rampage or
other such horrific events can be terrifying to parents of mentally unstable
older children. Could this kind of thing happen to their family? Will they one
day get a phone call from the police informing them of something terrible their
child has done?

While parents can take a young
child to a paediatrician, experts acknowledge that getting help for adult
children — especially those who resist treatment — can be a challenge.

“If you have a heart attack or a
broken arm, everyone knows where to get services,” said Michael Fitzpatrick of
the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If someone has bipolar disorder or
psychosis, it’s less clear where to get care.”

In some ways, young adults are very
vulnerable to mental health crises, said Paul Ragan, associate professor of
psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

Although people in their early 20s
are in the prime of their physical health, they’re also going through huge
changes — such as graduating college, moving away, starting a new job — that
leave them without important support structures, he said.

Mr. Ragan notes that, according to
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the three leading causes of
death for people ages 15 to 24 all involve some kind of violence or trauma:
unintentional injury, homicide and suicide.


Psychotic break in young adults

Young adulthood — the late teens
and early 20s — is also a time when many mentally ill people experience their
first psychotic break, Mr. Ragan said. Although none of the experts interviewed
for this story have personal knowledge of Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old accused
gunman in the Tucson shooting, Mr. Ragan and others said that his behaviour
strongly suggests paranoid schizophrenia.

In many cases, the best place to
begin to help troubled youth is by talking to a family doctor or paediatrician,
particularly one who knows the patient well, said David Pickar, an adjunct
professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in

A family doctor can help refer
patients to a mental health specialist, he said.

Parents should consider taking an
ill child to their own psychiatrist or doctor, and accompanying them to the
appointment, Mr. Ragan said.

Adult children often can be
included on their parents’ health plan, Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

Yet as kids grow up and move away
from home, parents may not see a mentally ill child every day, making it harder
to help. That makes it important for others in the community to speak up if
they’re concerned, Mr. Ragan said.

Many colleges and universities have
mental health centres and counsellors who can help, Mr. Fitzpatrick said.


Psychiatric care

Most people who are committed to
psychiatric care do so voluntarily, because they know they need help, said
James Cohen, a defence attorney and professor at Fordham Law School who teaches
psychology and criminal law.

Psychotic patients may not realize
how sick they are, however, and may refuse care or medication, Mr. Cohen said.

“There’s very little that parents
can do with an uncooperative child who has mental illness,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Ragan said concerned
parents shouldn’t give up hope. “The majority of people with mental illness, if
only by trial and error, manage to get help.”