Maintaining your mental health when your life isn’t mainstream

In 2001 an unimaginable event happened. My father was murdered. The feelings of raw anguish, sadness and anger were at times all consuming, but they lessened over time and are more like a dull ache today interspersed with random waves of loss. What took much longer to deal with and what surprised me the most in its intensity was the fear.

I was frightened.

I was frightened a lot of the time.
Scared to be alone. Scared to be in a raucous crowd. Scared to talk and think about it. Scared to not talk and think about it. Scared to get up each day and face not just a world where my dad didn’t exist anymore, but one where things like that could happen.

The rug had been pulled out from under me.  It was a massive thing. Too big sometimes for my own head. I was either going to sink or I needed to find a way to swim. In our own different ways my family learnt to swim and keep on swimming.

Years later, although a different set of circumstances, I am in a sink or swim situation again. But there is one brutal difference. This time around there are many more things conspiring to drown us.

I use my dad’s death as a comparison to highlight just how arduous the battleground of raising a child with special needs can be. I’m quite adept now at swimming and although some days I am just treading water, I am mostly making my way towards dry land. What breaks my heart is that all around me heaps of my SEN sisters (and brothers) are sinking.

Sinking fast.

And they don’t need to.

It is no mystery that depression is rife among special needs parents. According to a report by the National Family Caregivers Association between 40-70% of family caregivers show clinically significant symptoms of depression with approximately a quarter to half of these caregivers meeting the diagnostic criteria for major depression. It attributes the feelings of “struggling to make sense of a foreign, chaotic and often lonely world” as a source of the depressive symptoms.

When the causes of stress in special needs parenting were examined in a study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, high on the list were doctor or therapy appointments, medical treatments, hospitalisations, school issues, integrating the child’s needs into the family routine, watching their child in pain, worrying about the child’s vulnerability and explaining the health problems to those outside the family.

The researchers also cited that this stress could be intervened upon with supportive measures. 

This study made no mention of sleep. Sleep is often scant when a child has additional needs due to a mixture of medical, behavioural and psychological reasons. Studies have shown that even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted.

When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood.

Antidepressants are too often handed out as a “cure all”. Yet writing a prescription is not enough. It is like sticking a plaster on a gunshot wound. Special needs parents want to be able to manage, they want to be able to cope, they want to be empowered to do this.

They want to swim not sink.

Alas too often the system fails to buoy us up and instead conspires to add some concrete boots into the mix.

Why? Cost issues? The belief that we are looking to swindle the state out of vital pennies from the central pot? That there is only so much to go around and these children are getting more than their fair share?


Carers UK says that people providing high levels of care are twice as likely to become permanently sick or disabled than the general population, with 625,000 people suffering mental and physical ill health as a direct consequence of the stress and physical demands of caring.

It also estimates that carers save the UK economy 119 billion each year – an average of £18,473 per carer. 

Many families have to reach a crisis or breaking point before any care packages are put in place.

But isn’t prevention better than cure?
The priority for Public Health England, the agency set up by the Department of Health to protect and improve the nation’s health and to address inequalities, is to reduce the burden of disease and disability in life by focusing on preventing and recovering from the conditions with the greatest impact, including anxiety and depression.

Do special needs parents count?

I know each family copes in different ways and every child is different but nearly four years in, I believe the following is key in helping to prevent depression and mental illness among our ranks (and I suspect this list is the mere tip of the iceberg):

  • We need one healthcare professional overseeing and advocating for the family’s well being. Support does exist in different guises from the social worker and health visitor to Portage and the community nursing team. Yet their job is to put out fires once they have started in their own little rooms of the house, not to help you navigate through without the fires starting in the first place.
  • We need access to the right information. This would help dispel the myths surrounding the educational statementing process. There are many horror stories about statementing and SEN reform that make parents anxious before the process has even begun. Most of the time it is seamless and there is a good system in place. More information on new reforms can be found here
  • Other aspects of the system need to be simplified. Local authority social services departments have a duty under the Children Act to assess a ‘child in need’, including children who are disabled. Yet getting assessed does not mean any of your needs will actually be met. There are too many stories of families not being able to access respite/short breaks unless they can prove they are in “emotional turmoil” and “emotional distress”. Wouldn’t it be better to offer these services to prevent this distress in the first place. Stop making us jump through hoops.
  • Lifting and back pain needs to be addressed. This is a massive issue for special needs parents. The charity Backcare says that back pain “doesn’t kill but it tortures”. At the very least carers should have access to lifting advice and physiotherapy exercises for core strength training as they are going to need it. There is a Disabled Facilities Grant that carers can apply for to make their home more accessible yet just one occupational therapist makes the decision (whereas a statement involves numerous healthcare reports) in a one-hour assessment. It is a long drawn out process that is not for the fainthearted.
  • Families should be helped to get back to a “new normal” as soon as possible. Many parents cannot work as there is no adequate childcare out there for their complex children. Many lose their jobs and houses as a result. A group of bloggers are now involved in a Parliamentary Inquiry on the subject and more information can be found here.
  • More support groups like SWAN UK should exist to help families learn how to cope, share information and not feel so alone.

The best swimmers are those that can relax and feel in control in the water. We lose our buoyancy once we panic. Adjusting to life with a child with additional needs is like trying to swim when you are scared of the water. It is not being able to see land for the obstacles. It is about every day trying to not give up and go under.

Add to all of this the fact that when we do get to the edge of the water, instead of finding a helping hand we are all too often greeted by a big fat palm in our face pushing us back in.

It shouldn’t be sink or swim. We too want the chance to float for a bit and enjoy the water.


Gabe says: “Let’s get swimming”

13 Comments on Maintaining your mental health when your life isn’t mainstream

  1. Hurrah For Gin
    July 1, 2014 at 1:49 pm (6 years ago)

    Oh Alison i'm crying for you here, I never read that post about your dad. I can't even begin to imagine how you got through that, your poor family. I feel so bloody angry on your behalf.

    And yes prevention is so much better than cure. Carers shouldn't have to get to the point of absolute despair before they are offered help. They shouldn't feel like they have to give up, they should be supported properly from the start xxx

  2. Mumbling Wildly
    July 1, 2014 at 9:06 pm (6 years ago)

    As someone who knew their father was going to die for 8 years, I can't really imagine how desperate it must be to have it snatched away totally senselessly. I don't know how you cope really, but I know he would be bloody proud of the way you do.

    This article is brilliant, and can you go into politics one day please?? I'm gutted I never bumped into you at Britmums to say hello.

  3. Sian PottyMouthedMummy
    July 2, 2014 at 4:51 am (6 years ago)

    Oh lovely. You're so incredibly strong and reading this is so inspiring, I can imagine, for anyone else in a similar position. Your determination to keep swimming is wonderful x

  4. Emma Martin
    July 2, 2014 at 7:50 am (6 years ago)

    Alison, you are by far one of the most inspirational people i have met. So lovely in the face of so many struggles. I wholeheartedly agree with you here. There needs to be more care for the carers, absolutely there does.
    A brilliant post lovely lady – you have such a talent for this, and your sunny outlook is something we should all aspire to! Big hugs xxx

  5. Jo Cousins
    July 2, 2014 at 9:29 am (6 years ago)

    I so agree. Well said.

  6. Suzanne W
    July 2, 2014 at 4:45 pm (6 years ago)

    What an excellent post Alison! As if life with a special needs child isn't difficult enough as it is, they make it so hard to get the financial and practical support needed. A friend of mine has fought so hard to get what she is entitled to, it breaks my heart. But she's got it – at what price? And what about all the others who aren't intelligent, articulate or courageous enough to fight? Great post.

  7. Izzie Anderton
    July 3, 2014 at 8:32 am (6 years ago)

    This is such a great post. You are an inspiration to us all and I wish there was more help out there for everyone who's in a similar situation. Keep swimming lovely, you are one amazing lady.

  8. Judith Hurrell
    July 4, 2014 at 9:36 pm (6 years ago)

    Alison, I read this post ages ago but want to wait until I had the chance to comment properly. I am absoultely gobsmacked and so shocked to hear about what happened to your dad. It's absolutely horrendous. I'm so sorry. As for what you've said about caring for a special needs child, it is all so justified and entitled. I can't believe it needs to be said in this day and age, but you've put it so eloquently. I really hope you get a chance to float and enjoy the water a bit more. You deserve it. Lots of love and supportive vibes mama xxxx

  9. GingerB
    July 4, 2014 at 11:40 pm (6 years ago)

    I am one of those special parents who fell apart. I started using pain pills legitimately prescribed to deal with my depression, because I felt my depression was not legit since I had an alive and generally thriving (if needing extra help) child who faced cerebral palsy and a metabolic disorder. I self medicated my own depression and my husband's, who also had a much more significant mental health issue I didn't see. Now he is dead and I am in recovery, and actually my daughter is fine, but what I want to say is GET HELP! It is OK to feel bad, but not OK to stop feeling bad. Please, get help when and where you can. We all deserve to live full and happy lives and to help those who need us, but you can't do it without help if depression knocks you down. I don't recommend my path.

  10. Dario
    December 2, 2014 at 10:38 am (6 years ago)

    although there have been a lot of advancements with the technique of treating mental Disorders with the past 50 years, there is certainly still the certain stigma surrounding ones views with mental illness. Most of the people still mistakenly believe It a person which has a mental illness is very easily lazy or maybe they will certainly place blame for the parents whether the patient can be a child. mental illness

  11. harassment
    December 7, 2014 at 5:17 am (6 years ago)

    Most of these examples are based on Hayes's own involvement with mental health services, and his and his family's personal bouts with depression and psychological disorders.

  12. Jane Scott
    December 9, 2015 at 7:30 am (5 years ago)

    How shocking to read that about your Dad-I’m so sorry.And very honest and courageous of you to use that as an example of how resilience can be chipped away,even in those who have it highly developed through circumstance
    .The list,oh the list-why don’t the people at the top ask us what we need?
    That is spot on-and what’s more would represent an investment,costing the country less in the long term.
    Jane Scott recently posted…Beauty and Cruelty.My Profile


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