4word community, we are grateful to come to you each week with content that is helpful as you navigate the successes and challenges of life. As we continue to stay apprised of the impact of COVID-19, we want you to know that we are praying for you as you navigate each day! We are grateful during this time to be an army of intercessors praying for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of our friends, our families, and for our world. If you have specific prayer requests, please send those to Irrayna as she consolidates prayer requests for our Boards and staff to pray over each week. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9.
May is “Mental Health Awareness Month” and we once again want to open up conversations about mental illness and the confusion and stigmas surrounding it. One of the most difficult parts of a mental health journey falls on the caretaker of someone dealing with mental illness. How can you be the best support to your loved one dealing with mental illness? As a friend or family member, how can you be a positive support to the caretaker AND the person dealing with mental illness? Tammy McKinney, coach and Cedar Park small group facilitator for 4word: Austin, openly shares about her journey as a caretaker for her son on his mental health journey, and why knowing the “next right step” is the best approach to being supportive.
Tell us a little about yourself!
I think the people closest to me would say that I am compassionate, fun-loving, hardworking, joy-seeking, imperfect, goofy, kind, forgiving, messy, adventurous, athletic, dedicated, Christian, Momma of three girls and one boy, Grammy of one, friend, coach, speaker, entrepreneur, leader and absolutely…a work in progress.
I have been a senior manager in big companies and started a few of my own businesses. I serve my church and community and live under God’s amazing grace each day. Seventeen years ago, I left my corporate career and moved to the Texas Hill Country, had a couple more kids, built a few businesses and recrafted my life to fit my changing priorities and goals. I am living my life’s calling coaching and training people to lead well, overcome adversity and press on to pursue their dreams and God given potential with hope.
I am no stranger to some of the hardest trials life can throw at us. I have spent my adult life caring for family and friends through the struggles with addiction, mental illness conditions, and physical health challenges. I vulnerably live and coach from experiencing authentic pain, pursuing personal growth, and overcoming challenges while achieving great success in many areas of life and business. I have learned that with faith and stewardship, we can experience grief and joy on the journey of daily fulfillment and success!
I would love to share some encouragement and wisdom with you. You can follow Unlocking Your Best Life on social media or check out www.UnlockingYourBestLife.com
As a caretaker for someone dealing with mental illness, what has your journey looked like?
One in five Americans struggles with mental illness and every family is affected on some level. My family is affected.
My son is super intelligent, very charismatic, self-aware, empathetic, and brave. Today, I think you would agree that he is one of the greatest teenagers on the planet. My son had always been a bit more emotionally volatile than my other three kids. He would regularly “hijack” our plans with a meltdown, aggression, or very hurtful words at unexpected times. Since he was my fourth child and my only boy, I assumed he would outgrow some of the concerning behaviors.
We started some general therapy when he was 9 years old to help him (and me) work through some of his unacceptable behaviors and find some tools for the meltdowns. I have been in therapy myself off and on for years to work through relational issues and my own desire to be the healthiest I can be mentally. I am a firm believer in therapy to say the least but it can be VERY difficult to find one that is a good fit. We did not find a therapist that was the best fit for my son until after our first crisis but we both learned a lot on the early journey.
My son came to me one evening in 2017, at 12 years old, and said that he could not stop thinking about killing himself. He said that he needed serious help immediately. I was in shock and scared to say the least. I did my best to assess the seriousness of what he was trying to communicate. I prayed for wisdom. I reached out to the therapists we had in place to decide the first step. I took a chance and reached out to someone who had a son that had been hospitalized. I felt confident enough in their responses to take the next step. I am forever grateful for God’s protection and provisions in the midst of that first crisis.
That night began the last three years of multiple medical and psychiatric specialists, eight hospitalizations, hundreds of hours of outpatient therapy, research, and advocating on his behalf. There is so much work navigating insurance, managing bills, changing academic settings, repairing physical damage, and making our home as safe as possible. This, of course, was all in addition to managing daily life and work, dealing with each “episode” and trying to support the rest of my kids through the effects on them. It was immediately more than a full time job to navigate each best next step, for my son and all of us.
There are no quick solutions to treating mental health struggles. There is no formula for which treatment plans will best support any particular person. It is research, advocacy, and trial and error with medications, behavioral therapies, specialists, medical factors and daily dynamics.
The goal daily, sometimes hourly, has been constantly shifting from how to keep my son alive to understanding what he needs in order to function better in the world.
After we navigated the initial crisis, we put some next steps in place for ongoing support. God has continued to graciously and slowly reveal my son’s real underlying struggles, family history of mental illnesses, a medical autoimmune condition that attacks his brain, and resources to navigate this lifelong journey to our next new normal.
Today, I would say that we are in a very good place. My son is the most self-aware teenager I know. He works hard to self-manage the things that work for him to stay on track with his own goals and peace. He has a heart to help others in their struggles while maintaining his own boundaries. We do not have a promise of long-term stability. There is no way to know how a mental or physical illness might progress. The lessons along the way are very hard and priceless. We value each “good” day and have the opportunity to encourage others regularly. Our hope for the future is bright and we are trusting the Lord for each next right step.
What emotions have you had to work through as a caretaker?
Regardless of diagnosis, the symptoms presented by mental health conditions cause serious challenges for the individual and anyone that cares for them. As the mom and primary caregiver, you can only imagine all of the emotions that come up on this journey.
The initial “episode” came with so much panic, fear and disbelief about what was happening. I literally dropped my 12 year old son off at a mental hospital in the middle of the night with someone that barely spoke English and a doctor that did a three-minute consult on an iPad! I had to trust very limited and sporadic communication from the first hospital. It was so scary, chaotic and confusing. I was so very raw and completely overwhelmed trying to figure out how to support my child and my family. This crisis was very unanticipated. There was no time to prepare for it. I didn’t have previous experience and clear sources of guidance on each next step. I just knew that no matter what, with God’s grace, it was MY responsibility to figure out how to navigate this for my son and my other children. If I was not the number one advocate on this journey, nobody would be. I would not allow my son to give up on himself and his journey to healing.
I experienced anger and frustration with nearly every “episode” at the beginning, especially before the first hospitalization. I couldn’t help but wonder if my child had control over the negative behaviors and words or if he was doing it on purpose to get a desired outcome. I often resented having to redirect all of our activities because he was having a “melt down” or misbehaving. One therapist taught us that this is called “highjacking.” I hated that term but it was accurate.
Every mom wonders if they are parenting the best possible way for each of their children. I know that the way I reacted to bad behaviors made it worse sometimes. Continuous feelings of self-doubt and guilt are definitely a part of navigating the mental health journey. I couldn’t help but wonder if the behaviors, and eventually the illnesses, are my fault somehow. I had many thoughts about what I missed earlier in his life that could have helped him navigate better. I constantly question whether we are trying the right treatment and the possible short and long term effects on his health and the rest of our lives.
Maybe I was in denial about the seriousness of what was right in front of me for years. As our journey continued from one treatment or crisis to the next, I realized that the situation was more serious than I ever wanted to believe. Grief is a big part of the journey. With every setback, I would grieve the plans and hopes for my son’s future. The sadness was real and so overwhelming some days.
Being the caregiver on the mental health journey is very lonely. I was trying to understand, navigate, and advocate as best as I possibly could. I tried to explain what was going on to the schools, family, and friends that I felt needed to know. Everybody responds differently to trauma. They were confused and fearful and uneducated, for the most part, about the mental illness journey. They really didn’t know how to support us or care for us. I didn’t know what we needed most of the time, how could they know? The shock and fear led people to act in unexpected and sometimes, unhelpful ways. Comments or advice from well meaning people usually ended up feeling like negative judgement about my son and my parenting. Most of the time it was easiest to avoid conversations and not try to explain. Isolation became a coping mechanism.
The most critical things for me to learn as caretaker on this journey have been how to manage my emotions, have true empathy, gain understanding, and advocate. First, I had to understand how my child was experiencing his life. We had to learn how to communicate what we were both learning. We learned how to collaborate to solve the problems and determine how to most effectively function in the world daily.
I have the greatest respect for my son. Every hospital stay, every school situation, every therapy session, every reconnection with friends, every moment of overcoming negative thoughts, and making positive choices is beyond brave! The amount of courage he has had to have to walk bravely into his struggles to find help and healing is nothing short of heroic. I am so proud to be his mom.
What support do you currently have? Do you wish you had had that support sooner?
When we were in crisis and during ongoing challenges, it was hard to know what to share with people. I didn’t post on social media for prayer or support or updates about the crisis or ongoing struggles. I certainly didn’t want to draw attention to my son’s challenging, difficult, or extreme behaviors or latest diagnosis. I was trying to figure out what the heck was going on myself and I sure didn’t want a million questions or people to judge me or my kids.
On this journey, I gradually learned how to identify what things would be helpful to me and to my family. I asked for specific help when I could identify it. I quickly learned that I didn’t have to explain everything to everyone; I could just accept help wherever I could get it. I try to be specific about what is helpful. I allow people that I trust to love on us and pray for us.
We have a team of professionals now. After many ineffective consultations, we now know which doctors can support specific physical and mental health challenges. I have an amazing therapist that supports me. Both of my teenagers have therapists that they see regularly. We each have a safe place to work through our struggles. Therapy is not one-size-fits-all. It is hard to find a trusted therapist who will support what each person needs most. It takes time, energy, and money to provide this for all of us. However, it takes the unrealistic burden off of me to try to understand and “fix” everything.
I surround myself with people who care about personal growth and positive actions. I stay connected to my savior and God’s promises. It is critical to stay in a productive mindset and not make room for hopelessness.
NAMI.org is a great resource for the most current information on mental health diagnosis, treatment options, support available, and community resources. They offer free training and ongoing support for families affected by mental illness. I gained much-needed knowledge and support when I attended their classes and read their online materials. I even did some volunteer speaking for NAMI. Advocacy and awareness is a very beneficial part of my healing now.
It would have been great to have a roadmap and have all of these resources in place sooner. I just had to trust that God revealed what we needed in His timing for each next right step.
What advice would you give to someone who is either beginning to be a caretaker or has been one for years but is struggling?
Just take the next right step, pray without ceasing, and believe the following:
Start with acceptance: Realizing that you are dealing with a mental health condition is hard to accept. The sooner you get fully present to what it is and isn’t, the better you will be able to navigate the journey.
Know that there is hope: Mental health conditions are treatable with psychotherapy, medications, and support. Life may look different than you expected but becoming well and having a fulfilling life is possible for persons with mental health conditions and the people that care for them.
You are the expert on your loved one: Do your due diligence. There is plenty of data, knowledge, and opinions on mental illness. Research, ask questions, advocate, pray, and trust your gut for the next right step.
You don’t need to know everything: It is easy to get overwhelmed with trying to line up all the best treatments and plans. Find the information that you need when you need it, for the next right step.
You can’t know what no one has told you: As you learn and progress on the journey, give yourself lots of grace. You may be tempted to beat yourself up for not knowing or doing something sooner. Seek God and trust that He is revealing what you need to know in His timing, for the next right step.
Mental illness is not your fault: As you go through the process of seeking help for your loved ones, you will inevitably feel like you are somehow to blame. Remember that most people are uneducated about mental illness and their input can be hurtful. It is a biological condition, just like other physical illnesses. Don’t let anyone else’s misunderstandings make you feel blame.
What ways can someone best be a support to a caretaker of someone with mental illness?
Empathy: Just listen to what they want to share and connect to the emotion, even if you can’t relate or understand the details. Refrain from advice or opinions unless they ask for it.
Reassurance: Encourage them that they are brave and able and to keep taking the next right step.
Resources: Get educated on resources available in their area and share without expectation.
Self-care: Remind without judgement to rest and eat and take care of themselves to be their best for the person they are taking care of.
Help: Wherever you can with daily chores, meals and childcare, etc.
Check-in: The caregiver is often struggling with so much and just needs to be reminded that someone cares for them, too.
Pray: Pray for wisdom and provision and healing. Call or text often to ask if there is a specific prayer request.
Anything else you’d like to share?
My three daughters and I have been on our own journeys with recognizing our mental health struggles. Much of this awareness, acceptance, and getting support has come because of my son’s journey the last few years. Ignoring mental health conditions has long-term negative and sometimes fatal consequences. I praise God for His faithfulness to reveal our needs and resources.
We have to assume that everyone we know is struggling or cares about someone who is struggling to find peace and stability in their life. There is so much stigma still around acknowledging and getting the right support for mental illness. We can be the difference by being more aware, normalizing conversations, supporting, and offering hope to those affected by mental health conditions.
This verse gives us all the instruction as believers on how to walk through trials. It’s not easy instruction but it works better than any strategy or resource to find peace as we walk through trials, this side of heaven:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”Philippians 4:4-7 NIV
Tammy McKinney is the owner of, Unlocking Your Best Life. She is on mission sharing the keys for unlocking joy and fulfillment daily while pursuing a well-integrated life. Tammy coaches, trains and speaks on leadership, business development and personal growth. She is a respected influencer online, in her community, the church and the 4Word ministry. Before starting her entrepreneurial journey, Tammy was in corporate management leading business redesigns globally. Her greatest joys and heartaches come from being a momma of 4 amazing humans and grammy of 1 princess. She leverages her personal and professional adversity, achievements and faith to help others experience great transformation and make their unique impact in the world. For keys from Tammy to your unlocking journey, you can catch #tuesdaywithtammy LIVE teaching on her ‘Unlocking Your Best Life” FB page weekly or daily Instagram keys. You can visit her website at www.UnlockingYourBestLife.com to sign up for her newsletter.