“Mama, I hafta keep knocking on my head to get the bad thoughts to go away.”
This is how you start a conversation about mental health when you’re 5 years old. You take a rare quiet moment in the Mom Taxi and ask for a life raft.
“Okay, buddy. Can you tell me a little more about those bad thoughts? And maybe stop knocking on your forehead for a minute,” I cautiously reply.
He continues, “Well, the bad thoughts are about me dying. And you dying. And all our family dying. And about the tornadoes and our car crashing and sometimes ghost-es.”
I take a deep breath and tread carefully, “I can understand why you want to make those bad thoughts go away. I’m glad you are talking with me about them. Some good news is that you are safe. Dad and I love you and work very hard to make sure you are healthy and so, so safe.”
The conversation flowed with a call and response of his fears and my assurances until I dropped him off in front of the sunshine-yellow preschool house. As soon as his door was closed, I dialed our favorite family therapist and booked an appointment for my head-knocking worrier.
We are a family who embraces professional help with bear-hugging arms.
Dishwasher won’t respond to the YouTube tips we tried? We call a plumber.
Mystery rash on child Number 4? We call the pediatrician.
Gopher holes in the front lawn? We call pest control.
And when one of us is struggling to navigate a tricky headspace, we call a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or psychologist – depending on the nature of the trickery.
I was the therapy pioneer in our family. (This title did not come with a Davy Crockett hat, unfortunately.)
After spending May 2015 through May 2018 in a constant state of pregnancy or nursing, my body needed help adjusting back to solo status. I found a thoughtful LPC who walked alongside me on a tender journey to balance out my racing thoughts.
A year later, when we began navigating some potentially scary diagnoses with the head-knocker’s older brother, we found a pediatric LPC to help.
Her insight was helpful as he processed the big feelings around how out of control his body felt, and she spotted things we had not and was the first to mention something neurological might be happening. Sure enough, an EEG confirmed her suspicions when he was diagnosed with epilepsy.
Having our LPC along for the experience of medical tests, a battery of medication trials and errors, and balancing school and social issues was vital.
When my instinct was to sugarcoat, she encouraged us to be honest and give him all the tools and strategies to manage his diagnosis. It was the right choice.
His doctors are always amazed at his ability to name and describe his seizures and medication – down to dosage amounts – and how they all impact his body.
He will tell anyone who stands still long enough about his epi-LEP-sy (his emphasis, not mine). He knows when the pharmacy gives us a different brand name of medication because he is fully aware and in charge of his epilepsy.
Approaching this kind of potentially devastating life experience with a trained counselor empowered our kiddo instead of making him shaky and reactive.
When COVID-19 turned us all into cloistered home-dwellers, our teen felt the isolation deeply. Thankfully, the mental health field was quick to see the need for professional help and offered online counseling sessions.
Our daughter and I spent an afternoon scrolling the PsychologyToday.com “Find a Therapist” page until we found someone who took our insurance, had expertise in areas applicable to her and even had pink hair, “Like Tonks from Harry Potter!” It was a match made in heaven, or Hogwarts.
After the initial exchange of information, I stepped aside and gave our daughter the freedom to experience professional help at her own pace. “Complain about Dad and me all you want. It’s healthy. Grump about school and viola and your siblings. Tonks will talk you through it all!”
Half our family had benefited from therapy, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the lispy head-knocker expressed his bad-thought worries. It was muscle memory for me to speed-dial the pediatric LPC at the first sign of trouble.
As a person of faith, some might ask why prayer wasn’t my first line of defense. Couldn’t Jesus fix this? Where was my belief in “the Great Physician”?
In my humble (ha!) opinion, there’s room for both and all. I once saw a woman wearing a shirt that said, “I love Jesus and my therapist!” Yes, girl! Me too.
The notion that people of faith need to rely on Jesus-powered emotional bootstraps in lieu of seeking professional help is harmful.
Some people can pray their way through problems, great! (Though I would suggest having a safe space to talk through issues with a professional would lead to better outcomes, to each their own.)
However, applying the faith recipe that worked for you to someone who is vulnerable and seeking professional help isn’t helpful.
Whether the person is meeting with a psychologist, utilizing online counseling or even benefiting from medication, our response as people of good faith needs to be, “Yahoo! I’m here for you!”
There is no medal for clawing your way out of dark spaces alone. All that matters is that you move toward the light. Cast about for what lifts you. I am sure your faith will be one such boost along with:
- Good friends
- Soulful music
- A budding flower
- A nest full of baby birds
- Cinnamon in your coffee
- Brown paper packages tied up with string
- And a professional therapist – an empathetic and supportive ally as you navigate your life’s journey
At 5 years old, it’s easy to knock on your forehead and tell your mama you need help. She’ll wrap you up in her safe arms while you feel her breathe on the top of your sweet baby head. She can fix this. She knows just the person to call. She loves you.
Rest comfortably in the arms of your savior who loves you as much as that mama. Take the helpful hands being offered and walk together toward mental peace – no bootstraps required.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Mental Health Awareness Month (May). The previous articles in the series are:
5 Tips Toward Good Mental Health During Pandemic | Michael Chancellor
9 Ways to Overcome Pandemic’s Shadowy Grip | Gillian Drader
Limited Access, Funding Plague Mental Health Care | Monty Self