May is Mental Health Awareness month, and there is no better time to focus on how mental health affects our families and communities. For over half a century, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness month in America. In spite of this focus, mental health still isn’t prioritized in the same way in which we discuss and scrutinize the health of our other vital organs – we forget that the brain is a part of our overall well being and health. Stigma remains the single largest barrier to care when it comes to mental health. The many negative attitudes and stereotypes that often occur towards people with mental illness can make it very difficult to get the support that they need.

As a mother of a teenager with special needs, I have first hand experience with mental health concerns amongst parents of children with varying degrees of needs. Unfortunately, due to the added responsibilities of caring for their children combined with stigma, many of these parents tend to neglect their own emotional needs.  According to the CDC, 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism and 1 in 5 people live with a disability in the USA. These alarming statistics bring an important issue to the forefront – the mental health of mothers of children with autism. Mothers of children with autism face severe and unusual challenges as these children often exhibit social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors that are difficult to manage and often require constant support and care. Learning to cope with the overwhelming emotional and physical demands of raising a child with special needs often leads to increased stress, anxiety, and depression which pose an additional devastating burden on the family.

In particular, a family that has just received a diagnosis of autism for their child experiences tremendous stress as they navigate the numerous interventions, specialized care needs, and support systems required for their child.  For the caregiver, the mental and physical exertion required to manage all of the different components of their child’s care can often be overwhelming and stressful. Over time, given the demands of their caregiving responsibilities, mothers often neglect their own wellbeing, which can lead to increased mental and even physical health issues. Indeed, a number of research studies have reported that stress levels in parents of children with Autism spectrum disorders is significantly higher than parents of typically developing children or even children with other developmental disorders, which can be highly detrimental to their mental and physical health (Padden & James, 2017). This places additional burden on an already stressed family unit.

My child has both autism and autoimmune diseases. Therefore, I can empathize with the growing number of parents who are faced with daily challenges in raising their children.  These children have a range of physiological and emotional needs that often need a lot of time and resources. The fear that every special needs parent faces is “who will care for their special needs child after I am gone?”  

My personal experiences have taught me that one has to make time to care for one’s emotional health. The daily demands of parenting a child with special needs make it even more important for parents to engage in activities that reduce stress and anxiety. This can include seeking help, connecting with other mothers, and doing things that relax the mind and body, like yoga, meditation and even breathing techniques. For example, a previous study from Harvard University led by Dr. Erica Siblinga demonstrated that mindfulness meditation lowers anxiety and stress, which may improve mental health(Goyal et al., 2014).  This May, I urge mothers to take their mental health seriously so that they can continue to feel supported and loved for all the tireless work that they do for their children.

Here are some tips for early prevention and managing anxiety and depression that a lot of other mothers I have spoken with have found to be helpful:

  1. Get an annual mental health screen along with a Physical especially if you are experiencing frequent anger, frustration and a sense of hopelessness.
  2. Practice mindfulness at least 2-3 times a week where you try to stay in the moment.  
  3. Take time to eat a healthy diet.
  4. Surround yourself with positive people who are supportive.
  5. Speak up and share with family, close friends and your physician if you notice changes in your mood, motivation and energy levels, sleep patterns, and/or appetite.
  6. Seek professional advice and get help as soon as possible.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself so that you can be kind to your special needs person!

Usha Arun lives in Cupertino. She is an Autism advocate, a loving mom and educator to my 17 year old  son who is bright with high-functioning autism, and I am also passionate about women’s empowerment. I have a Masters of Science degree in Organizational Behavior from the University of Hartford but am currently a stay-at-home mom.

Bibliography for article

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., . . . Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med, 174(3), 357-368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

Padden, C., & James, J. E. (2017). Stress among Parents of Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comparison Involving Physiological Indicators and Parent Self-Reports. J Dev Phys Disabil, 29(4), 567-586. doi:10.1007/s10882-017-9547-z

Medical disclaimer: This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only and the information provided should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. Please consult with your doctor, licensed physician or other qualified health provider for personal medical advice and medical conditions.