Michele and Lloyd Sparling, Oakville
When Michele and Lloyd Sparlings’ son was in Grade 2, he started to show signs of anxiety; he was often worried or afraid and went from being a “social little guy” to a boy who seemed to always be on the outside of the circle at school and with friends. The Sparlings knew for certain that something was afoot when their son came home from school one day with a story he wrote to describe himself. Through the story, he described himself as not fitting in, needing to change schools, and often worrying about his mom and dad.
The Sparlings’ family doctor sent him for a psychiatric assessment with a three month wait list. The psychiatrist gave the family some tips and advised them to work with a school counsellor. Three years later, in Grade 5, their son started to become depressed. He stopped participating in sports and was nervous about school – he seemed to be in a constant state of anxiety. In need of further mental health care, the Sparlings ended up on a year-long wait list for treatment. Not wanting to wait, the family accessed private-care. By 12-years-old, their son was taking medications and trying to manage those side effects. He was bullied at school and missed nearly 1/3 of his Grade 6 year because of his anxiety and depression being debilitating, and also because of going to many appointments.
The crisis also meant that both parents could not continue to work full-time, and it was decided that Michele, an HR consultant with her own business, would change her hours to work less to be able to be at home for her family. At age 16, a 4-month absence from school saw the care shift to a more intensive therapy program through Sunnybrook Hospital in to help with mood but also social and personal goals. This change meant a twice of day round trip to get her son to Sunnybrook and home (taking roughly 6 hours of driving time each day) for 4 months. Complementing the Sunnybrook program, there were also private care group therapy sessions twice a week in mid-town Toronto as there were no programs closer to home. These involved an additional roughly 4 hours a night travel/session time twice a week for the duration.
“I became absolutely physically and mentally exhausted. I felt like I had nothing left to give,” said Michele. The family was further struck with a string of traumatic events in a short time frame: suffering the loss of loved ones, an injury, and others in the extended family were diagnosed with mental illness. “I was so depleted. On top of it, I was often up all through the night, trying to manage the household, trying to still be engaged in my business, needing to be there for our youngest, all while helping our son.”
Lloyd, a tax partner with PwC Canada, was able to keep working that by shifting work further into the evenings and weekends.
“Michele and I are very fortunate because we both have careers in consulting. We have a fair bit of flexibility compared to many who have mandatory scheduled work hours otherwise we would have found it extremely difficult to accommodate the family’s needs,” said Lloyd. “When you’re going through things like this, opportunities for advancements are put on the back burner. And as in cases like Michele’s where she is self-employed, when you don’t work, there is no money coming in but the costs of private care can be substantial. Self employed workers do not have access to things like stress leave or EI.”
Work and finances are not the only ways families are affected when children are struggling to get care for mental illness. As Lloyd says, it’s not like when a child breaks a bone and there is a known, finite time period for when the child gets better. Managing mental health is ongoing.
“There are peeks and troughs, and you need to be able to look after yourself so that you can be in a state where you can be effective in caring for others, but it’s really hard to find the time and capacity to make sure you have the physical and mental energy to do so,” he said.
A child struggling with depression and anxieties frequently find themselves needing parental support late in the evenings and overnight as their ability to deal with the challenges of the day have exhausted their emotional ability to cope and have them feeling most overwhelmed.
Michele says one thing that really made a difference was the wrap-around care they received while her son was in the 16-week program at Sunnybrook Hospital. While her son was in treatment, in addition to a psychiatrist, a social worker assigned to their son was available for herself and Lloyd. The social worker was invaluable with information and advice that helped them manage the situation. Support for the entire family was also offered.
When their son was in high school, the Sparlings also realized that their youngest daughter had also begun struggling with anxiety issues.
“It had been going on much longer than we knew,” said Michele. “She didn’t want to add an extra layer on us and she kept it all in. She really struggled in Grades 11 and 12.”
Today, the Sparlings’ daughter is managing her anxiety and even speaks publicly about her experiences. Their son, now 23, and in university, continues to struggle with his anxiety, which makes it hard for him to do social things with other people at times, or things that would be very simple for others.
“Now they are both adults, but the worry is always there as a parent,” said Michele. “We check in and remind them resources are available when they are really struggling and need help – but kids don’t always reach out. We try to help them with self advocacy. It’s a new level of normal for us.”