With the way the media portrays mental hospitals, these don’t seem like places you want to take your child. It was not a place I ever wanted to take my child, yet I have. More than once. As you can imagine, it was not an easy decision. While more people are speaking out about mental illness, most people are still unaware of why a child would need inpatient psychiatric care. I can say now that while it was a scary and overwhelming experience, I am grateful to the doctors, nurses, and staff that have taken care of my child and provided him the care that he so desperately needed.
Bryce was only in first grade; he was seven years old. He was struggling in all areas of life—home, school, and social skills. He had already been diagnosed with a mood disorder and ADHD, and was taking medications for these mental health conditions. But even with support, Bryce was engaging in self-injurious behaviors including head-banging and running in the street, wanting to be hit by cars. He was struggling at school—refusing to work and having angry, violent outbursts resulting in restraints. I got frequent calls from school telling me that I had to come pick him up because he was uncontrollable.
Our family was struggling as well. Bryce was unpredictable. We often avoided going out as a family or inviting people to our house because we worried about Bryce’s inappropriate behavior, or being judged. We were in crisis; chaos ensued. What we accepted as “normal” were things that should not be tolerated. When you are deep in crisis, you do not even realize that you should not have to walk on eggshells around your child, or worry that bedtime will be explosive. We needed help; we needed to do something to improve our quality of life. Bryce’s social worker and psychiatrist both suggested we consider inpatient care for Bryce. Really? I had not even known that was an option.
Although Bryce clearly needed help, my husband and I were unsure about taking Bryce to the hospital. We discussed it, but kept dismissing the idea. What happens there? What does it accomplish? How would he do in a hospital setting without his parents? Would he feel abandoned? It seemed extreme and frightening to think of our young child being locked in a mental hospital.
We put off the decision as long as we could. We tried social skills group, behavior plans at school, supports at home, and individual therapy. Bryce was seeing a psychiatrist for medication management as well. But he was not getting better. We were concerned for his safety at home and at school. He was so young, yet he often mentioned wanting to die. Even at that young age, Bryce seemed to understand this concept. When asked if he knew what that meant, he said, “I won’t see Mommy and Daddy anymore.” It was frightening—something no parent wants to hear.
After consulting with professionals, we determined hospitalization was the best option. Bryce needed to go—he was a danger to himself and others, and was not getting better in his current environment. We hoped that he would benefit from the safety of the hospital. Additionally, staff would monitor him around the clock, evaluating him to determine which medications best suited his needs. There would be a new set of people working with him who could provide more insight into his diagnosis. It took time for us to come to this decision, but we did. Our child needed inpatient care. He was ill, and we needed him to get better.
The first hospitalization was a learning experience and a respite, but was not a fix. Mental health conditions are complicated, and treatment takes time and patience. And although Bryce was hospitalized once, he needed to go again.
The summer before second grade, Bryce was once again unstable. He was having violent outbursts several times a day. The day he was admitted, I felt like he wasn't even my child. I could not talk to him. I could not calm him down. It was the first day of second grade.
He got upset. He took a mirror off the wall and threw it. He hit me. He ran from the house. He tried to crawl in the sewer. He was screaming and running away. He was trying to break down doors on other people’s houses. Neighbors tried to help, but nothing would calm Bryce down. He had so much adrenaline that we could not even carry him, he was so strong.
After about an hour of running around in the 100 degree heat, he told us, “My ear hurts.” “OK,” we told him. “We can go get it checked out.” He got in the car, and we went to the hospital. We knew that he needed to go. We knew it was best for our child.
So, when do you know that your child needs to go to the hospital?
- Listen to your instincts. You know your child best. If you feel your child is a danger to themselves or others, your child may need inpatient care. If you are dealing with inappropriate behavior and things are not getting better with other supports and medications, your child may need inpatient care. Each time Bryce went, it became clearer that he met these criteria and needed to go.
- Listen to the professionals. You can always ask professionals for advice—your child's psychiatrist, therapist, doctor, or social workers. These specialists know the criteria for inpatient admission and can guide you on when it will benefit your child. The doctor may recommend inpatient care if medication changes are needed. Sometimes this can only be done safely when the child is closely monitored in the hospital due to potential withdrawal and side effects.
- Listen to your child. Sometimes a child needs a break from life, a rest, a place to feel safe and secure. The hospital provides this for them with full-time structure, staff, and care. There are other children there who they can identify with, there is no school pressure, and there are therapeutic groups and activities. The hospital provides a respite for the family, but also a respite for the child. Bryce often asked to go to the hospital; he felt safe there. It did not always mean he needed to go, but it let us know he wanted support.
- Listen to your friends. As I mentioned, when Bryce was unstable, there was chaos in our family. What seems normal to you may truly not be a way that people should live. We often walk on eggshells around our explosive children. Your friends may notice this and comment. Hear that—hear them telling you that something is not OK. It is not judgment; it is concern.
I hope you never need this information. But if you do, it is OK. You and your child will get through it. It is your decision, and you are doing what your child and your family needs.
Tracy Greenberg has become a strong part of the Sheppard Pratt community. She is mother to Bryce, who attends The Frost School, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System. She gives her time as part of the Consumer Advisory Council, a group of family members, former patients, former students, and employees of the health system who are dedicated to improving our quality of care and enhancing recovery from mental illness and addiction. Follow along with Tracy through her blog.