A strange thing happened a few months back at the Accessibility Summit in McClean, Virginia. On Friday afternoon, I was sitting in the exhibit hall at my book table. A copy of my newest book, Does My Child Have PTSD? What To Do When Your Child Is Hurting from the Inside Out was displayed in a place of honor.
A woman paused, picked up the book, and read the title. “Does my child have PTSD?” She looked up and said, “Probably he does. But I think I do too. Where’s the book about that?”
“Does your child have special needs?” I asked.
Her eyes, haunted and dull, met mine and she and poured out her story. A son with autism in elementary school. A failed marriage to an abusive husband. 24/7 care of her little boy except when he’s with his dad. Battles with the school district about how to meet her son’s needs. Her mounting stress exacerbated by guilt about not resting in Jesus like she wishes she could.
The strange thing wasn’t her particular story. The strange thing was that for the remainder of the conference–Friday evening and all day Saturday–parent after parent paused at the table where I sat. They picked up the book and responded to the title in the same way with the same haunted, dull look in their eyes. “My child has PTSD, and I think I do, too.”
Their responses alarmed me. Why? Because while writing Does My Child Have PTSD? my research unearthed several studies showing the importance of parents safeguarding their own mental health. Numerous articles I read noted that children of parents with mental illness are at greater risk of developing PTSD after traumatic events. Others showed that pregnant women with PTSD are likely to pass along a genetic marker for PTSD to their unborn children.
Yet the Amazon search I conducted after returning home resulted in some disturbing findings. There were numerous books in the general market for medical professionals about dealing with caregiver stress, chronic stress, and compassion fatigue. There were books for teachers on the same issues. General market and Christian market books abounded for caregivers of adult spouses and aging parents. But there weren’t any general market books devoted to the caregiving stress parents experience while raising children with special needs. And there were none in the Christian market either.
How can that be, I wondered, when writers of both the Old and New Testament call believers to care for widows and orphans, the sick and the blind, the poor and the outcasts? How can we be so far off the mark? Why isn’t the church addressing issues of mental health instead of ignoring them?
Then I thought about the Mental Health and the Church conference being sponsored by Saddleback church next October. I thought about Key Ministry, a non-denominational organization that ministers to families of kids with mental health issues. And I remembered a consensus reached by a gathering of special needs ministry leaders that mental health will be the next area of need God is calling His church to address.
The church is beginning to grapple with this issue. But much remains to be done. For me, and I hope for some of you, mental illness ministry begins with supporting stressed and traumatized parents of kids with special needs. The prospect is frightening because I don’t know how or where to start.
But God does. And He will guide us each step of the way when our eyes are fixed upon Him. When our prays are offered in dependence and submission to Him. When we confess our neglect and ignorance about the trauma and stress that oppresses caregiving parents. When our hearts are broken, and we weep for the burdens they bear. When we ask Him to help us guide struggling, guilt-ridden parents to Christ’s rest in this world and the next.
Lord, open the eyes of your people to the needs of struggling parents. Give us your wisdom and strength to come alongside parents overwhelmed by the stress and trauma of caregiving. Show us what they need and equip us to meet them. Let your Spirit be strong in us, so we are diminished and Christ is glorified. Amen.
Jolene Philo grew up with a disabled father and raised a child with special needs. She has also welcomed kids with special needs into her elementary classroom for 25 years. She is the author of several books about special needs parenting, caregiving, and special needs ministry. She blogs at www.DifferentDream.com and speaks around the country about special needs parenting and inclusion ministry. Jolene and her husband live in Iowa, are parents to two adult children, and are known as Grammy Jo and Papoo to their three adorable grandchildren. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.