Ann Douglas: Balancing Motherhood And Mental Health Advocacy
Ann Douglas is a passionate writer, talented speaker and parenting expert. She is also the mother of four children who have each struggled with different mental health challenges. Inspired by her role as a parent and the journey of being a mental health patient herself, Ann has made it her mission to motivate others in need.
An accomplished Canadian author, Ann has published numerous books including ‘The Mother of all Parenting Books’as well as Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Betweenwhich speaks about the challenges of parenting a child with mental health and neurological challenges.
Ann sits on the editorial board of the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction Health’s Portico website and is an active contributor to the social media team for The Canadian Red Cross. She hosts regular online conversations about parenting and mental health through Morneau Shepell Children’s Support Solutions, the International Bipolar Foundation, and Partners for Mental Health. Ann also speaks at parenting and mental health seminars across the country.
We spent some time with Ann to find out more about her experiences and expertise:
What inspired you to get involved in mental health advocacy?
I wanted to let people know that it’s possible to have a mental illness and a great life. You don’t have to choose one or the other.
I learned this through personal experience—both as a person who lives with bipolar disorder herself and as a person whose family members also grappled with a number of mental health challenges.
I am passionate about sharing my story so that others don’t end up feeling terrified or defeated if they—or someone they love—is diagnosed with a mental illness. A diagnosis is simply a piece of information about you. It doesn’t begin to define you and it certainly doesn’t have to limit you. It is possible to live well with a mental illness and I want to ensure our society knows this.
What has been the most difficult challenge as a parent of a child with a mental illness?
There are so many things that are hard about being the parent of a child with a mental illness. You feel stressed and overwhelmed. You feel unsure about what you can do to help. You worry about your child…a lot. And you often feel alone. Sometimes you feel frustrated and angry and other times you feel sad that life is so difficult for your child. You feel so many things and sometimes you feel all of these things at the same time.
But one of the hardest things is feeling like you and your child are being judged by people who don’t understand what it’s like to be a child struggling with a mental illness—or what it’s like to be that child’s parent. People need to understand that having a child who is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent—just as being a child who is struggling doesn’t make them a “bad” child.
If you could send one message to parents with a lived experience similar to your own, what would it be?
Do not feel guilty for doing things that give you pleasure, like meeting a friend for a cup of coffee or going for a walk on a beautiful day. Self-care isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. You can’t put your own life and happiness on hold until some future day when your child is no longer struggling. You need to do the hard work of taking good care of yourself and finding joy in your life right now even if you’re also supporting your child through a really tough time.
And doing so doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. You can feel really sad about the difficulties that your child is experiencing and you can simultaneously give yourself permission to experience happiness in your life. It is actually a gift for both you and your child because a child who is struggling needs and deserves the strongest and healthiest parent possible.
What does your support network look like when your family is facing challenges?
It looks and feels like a family that is being enveloped in a blanket of caring. We are so, so lucky….
For starters, I have three great sisters who are incredibly helpful and resourceful—the exact type of people you want to have in your court when you’re feeling frightened and overwhelmed. They have been there for me and my kids on countless occasions.
I am also really lucky to have three close friends who have been through similar experiences with their kids. They have been incredible sources of support and wisdom over the years. My friend Darlene meets me for lunch and listens to me talk about my worries and frustrations. My friend Lori sends me e-mails of support from across the world. And if I go too long without e-mailing my friend Karen, she’ll call me to find out how I’m really doing.
And that is just the beginning of the depth and breadth of the support that my family has received over the years. So many people have rallied to our side when we needed them most. I’ll never forget when our neighbors arrived in the middle of the night to stay with our three boys when our daughter had to be rushed to the hospital.
Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for parents who are seeking support?
Remind yourself that there are people out there who aren’t merely willing to help, but who are actually eager to help. People derive a lot of joy and satisfaction from helping others. It’s the way we’re wired, so don’t deprive another person of the pleasure that comes from helping your family in a time of need. Simply look forward to being able to pay this kindness forward to some other family in some other way at some other time.
To reiterate my strongest piece of advice: You don’t have to do this on your own. Let people know what you need and be willing to accept help. Embrace this aspect of being human – it will make you feel so much better.
Ann Douglas is adding her voice to those of spokespeople Clara Hughes, Serena Ryder, Mike Babcock, Marie-Soleil Dion, Étienne Boulay, Michael Landsberg, Howie Mandel, Mary Walsh, Stefie Shock, and Michel Mpambara as they fight to end the stigma in the lead up to Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 27.