The final years of school are such daunting times for both parents and students. As a parent, you likely want your child to do the best they can in all aspects of life, including health — but what do you do when they are feeling depressed and can’t attend school?
We spoke to two experienced workers in the mental health and education field who will give us more of an insight into exactly how you can act in this situation.
First, we spoke to Maddy Forwood, Senior Youth Worker at MYST, about how parents can look after themselves in this challenging situation. We’ll then discuss practical tips for assisting your child, as recommended by Senior Youth Access Team Clinician at headspace, Debra Mainwaring.
Keep reading to learn more!
Another important note is that if your child is currently experiencing mental illness, it is great to get in contact with the school counsellor and act early. Not attending school is necessary in some situations, but it shouldn’t be the first strategy. Most school or local doctors are a great place to start if you have early concerns.
Looking After Yourself
As a parent, it’s so easy to put your child’s needs in front of your own — you love them and want what is best for them! If your child is feeling depressed, this becomes even more true.
However, as Maddy reminded us, “You can’t pour from an empty bucket.” Taking time to look after yourself is a crucial step in aiming for long-term success for the mental health of both you and your child.
Things like making yourself a healthy dinner you’ll enjoy, going for a walk with friends or even just getting your nails done can make a difference. You can find some great tips for self care as apparent here.
#1: Recognise it’s not your fault
It can be very draining to care for a child or young adult who is struggling with depression. This is made even harder if you feel guilty about the situation.
“Generally speaking, if a young person has clinically diagnosed depression, this is not the fault of the parent at all,” Maddy said. In fact, there is likely very little you could have done to prevent it.
Taking a step back and realising that you aren’t at fault for your child’s depression can be a crucial step in handling the situation well. It may be big, sad and at times scary — but you’re not to blame.
#2: Find a support network
Maddy said that the most important thing for parents to do when caring for themselves is find a good support network. This could be other parents or good friends.
You may also seek professional help! There is nothing shameful about doing this. In fact, seeing a counsellor or psychologist will not only give you great insight into your own confusion around your child’s health — it’ll likely teach you tactics that will help them.
If you feel you would like to see a psychologist yourself, you may be able to access a mental health care plan through Medicare. Some businesses also provide mental health support for their staff, so it is worth asking!
There’s also online places that you can look at — Maddy recommended ReachOut, for interactive guides and ideas!
#3: Talk to your child’s school
Talking to your child’s school is not just useful for the student — it allows you as the parent to have a clearer understanding of how your child who is feeling depressed can be supported. This may reassure you and help you to progress.
“Schools have the capacity to be flexible, and the more you communicate and let the school know what’s going on, the more they can be supportive of the journey back into school and back into study,” Maddy explained.
This support is also for you! Many school welfare advisors are very willing to chat with parents and find what they are struggling with. In fact, public schools across New South Wales have pretty strict policies and practices on this.
Looking After Your Child
Whilst you are caring for yourself, it’s really important to check in and see how your child is progressing. This needs to be something that you approach kindly with your child, providing options to them.
We have lots of tips on this from Maddy and Debra.
Step #1: Acknowledge their struggle
It’s important to make sure your child is aware that you know they are depressed and finding things hard. If they recognise your support, they’re much more likely to open up. If they tell you they are finding something in particular challenging, the best thing you can do is listen.
“The important thing to know is that you have to actually be really assertive,” Debra said. She told us that it’s really important to recognise how your child is struggling, but to encourage them to continue attending school or seeking special help.
Importantly, recognising a mental illness does not mean giving your child soft treatment or coddling them! The best approach is to be gentle and nurturing whilst encouraging your child who is feeling depressed to find practical measures that will help them.
Step #2: Ask what they need
“Asking your young person how you can support them is the first step [to change]. It’s got to come from them. Let them tell you what they need, and then you can come in and make suggestions,” Maddy said.
Once you have figured out that there is an issue and it has been addressed, start working backwards to find the root cause of the issues and exactly what your child might benefit from.
“I think if your young person is experiencing a bout of depression during their HSC, what they need is for someone to be there for them and say to them that it’s okay. Ask ‘How can I support you? What does that look like?’” Maddy said.
This is especially important in teenagers and HSC students, as they are familiar enough with their own thought patterns to identify an issue. ReachOut’s story of Charlotte suggests that as just 13, Charlotte “was the first person to realise something wasn’t right.”
Chances are, your child has noticed issues with their mental health long before you have, so it’s important that you take action together.
Step #3: Make a plan with the school (and start it early!)
This one is lengthy, but it’s by far the most important point, so grab a cup of tea and carry on reading!
We know from extensive paediatric and psychological research that social isolation can feed depression. Feeling like you are distant from your peers or not at the same mental capacity can cause insecurity, especially in young people.
It is then vital that students and parents make plans with schools to try and get back on track. Attending school can be really challenging, but Debra says it’s also important for long-term educational success and social interaction.
However, we recognise that it can be so difficult to know the right thing to do if your child is depressed and really struggling. Do you give them a couple of sick days? Do you try to send them to school like normal? Here are some practical tips for making plans with your school.
#1: Talk within two days
Timing is key. Debra has co-authored work for Sydney Catholic Schools and the NSW State Government which she said suggests, “If you don’t have some kind of plan within two days of a young person not feeling well, then it’s a slippery slope, and it’s really hard to re-engage them.”
Even if you know your child may not attend school for a couple of weeks, chat to the principal, deputy or school counsellor as soon as you can.
#2: Get them to see the school counsellor
Chatting to the school early means that your child dealing with depression has a better chance of getting in to see the school counsellor. The benefits to this are twofold.
First, your child maintains a connection with their school and is likely to feel more cared for.
Secondly, the school counsellor can often apply for special provisions or make a mental healthcare plan that can be enacted during school hours.
“It’s really important that the school counsellor has access to any [medical] reports so they can complete some sort of recognition of that within the education department,” Debra said.
“Parents should be advocating that the child has school access to the school counsellor so they can do some assessments and the young person can have [assistance within the education system],” she added.
#3: Discuss the next practical steps
Each school system functions slightly differently and you will need to chat with your school to see what is available. However, generally once you have spoken with a school counsellor and gained recognition for your child’s mental health issues, practical steps can be put in place.
Schools aim to create a sense of belonging and confidence for the students. Some schools may offer smaller class sizes, others may allow students to have mental health breaks during classes.
We are going to keep this section fairly broad, because it is important you talk with your child and their school to create individual actions plans. Schools have wellbeing officers, deputy principals and counsellors dedicated entirely to this — if you chat with them proactively, they will likely help you as much as they can!
Step #4: Get professional help
At the end of the day, figuring out your child’s mental health is a complex and painful process which you can’t do alone!
One of the best things you can do is take your child to see someone professionally if they are depressed. Headspace has free help for young people and is a great place to start.
GPs can also provide your children with mental health treatment plans, where Medicare lets you claim up to 20 sessions of professional help a year in 6 session blocks. If you have private health insurance, you can usually claim money back on psychologist bookings.
A great place to start if you are unsure about the help available is by contacting the school or your local GP.
You’re probably doing a much better job with this than you realise! Parenting is a tough gig, especially if your child is mentally unwell. It might be a slow battle, but start with these steps and slowly begin speaking to people about how you can assist your child.
Lucinda Garbutt-Young hopes to one day be writing for a big-shot newspaper… or maybe just for a friendly magazine in the arts sector. Right now, she is enjoying studying a Bachelor of Public Communication (Public Relations and Journalism) at UTS while she writes on the side. She also loves making coffees for people in her job as a barista, and loves nothing more than a sun shower.