This piece includes excerpts from my book, Broken Children, Sovereign God: Rejoicing in God’s Goodness Amidst Childhood Mental Health Struggles (Christian Focus, September 2023).

The fall of man altered every atom of creation. From manhood to motherhood to matrimony, nothing is as it should be. Some after-effects of the fall are mere annoyances, like the fear of spiders, or indigestion, or having to wear uncomfortable clothing. But most by-products of the fall take the breath from your lungs, wrench your heart from your chest, and are counted in tears. Childhood mental illness is one of those by-products.

In the world of public education, childhood mental illness is termed Emotional Disturbance, and classrooms designed to teach children with mental illness are termed Emotional Support. I taught in such classrooms for the first fourteen years of my teaching career, which to date spans nearly four decades. I love how God works, even though often you can’t see it until you have the gift of hindsight. I never expected to teach children with mental illness. What began as a foot in the door to teaching ended up becoming a passion and love for children who are seen as bizarre, are often violent, always anxious, rarely trusting, and perpetually marginalized. If “The Lord is near to the broken hearted,” (Psalm 34:18), then he was certainly working in my classroom.

Over those fourteen years in emotional support classrooms, I worked with a motley myriad of students. I witnessed the heartache of abuse, abandonment, and generational recurrences of madness. Many of my classrooms were permeated with violence, physical restraints, and regular disruption. Early in my career, classrooms for emotionally disturbed children did not make the distinction between diagnoses, severity of disorders, or even ages of the students. One of my first classrooms was comprised of twelve boys, ranging in age from six through thirteen, with diagnoses that ranged from autism to oppositional defiant disorder to psychosis. Included on the class list were a towering and violent sixth grader who was two inches taller than I was, a thirteen-year-old-rapist, a lanky and aggressive eight-year-old with a foul mouth and an intellectual disability, and a tiny meek and withdrawn first grader with autism. And, though at the time of my first classroom I didn’t know him yet, I had a God was working mightily on my behalf.

Dark Reality

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), one in six American children between the ages of six and seventeen have a diagnosed mental health disorder, the most prevalent of which include anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The CDC reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among American children aged ten to fourteen. Mental Health America reports that between 2020 and 2021, there was a 13% increase in cases of children experiencing major depressive episodes. That is 206,000 children in the United States alone. Whether these increases are due to broader screening methods or an actual rise in cases, it remains that a significant number of American households are affected by varying degrees of childhood mental illness.

The World Health Organization reports similar statistics globally, claiming that “mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged ten to nineteen years.” It reports that up to 20% of children worldwide are diagnosed with a mental health disorder, with half of those disorders manifesting by age fourteen. Globally, suicide is the third leading cause of death in children aged fifteen to nineteen years. More than half of these children do not receive treatment for their disorders.

There are myriad reasons for the uptick in mental health challenges among our children. We can point to social media, Covid, a removal of prayer and Bible reading from the schools, fatherlessness, or disastrous government policies. But no matter the cause, the fallout has left thousands of families in despair, confusion, and impotent desperation.

 Rejoicing in God’s Goodness Amidst Childhood Mental Illness

On a chilly April Tuesday morning, twenty-two years after my first encounter with childhood mental illness, and ten years after Jesus Christ took hold of my husband and me, I got on my knees and confessed to God that my walk with him was too comfortable. I asked him to show me a way my husband and I might stretch the limits of our comfort zone, to be better contributors to his kingdom. My husband is fond of saying, “Be careful what you pray for,” because the outcome of that prayer eventually propelled us down a road we never imagined we’d be traveling. 

At first, the entrance to the road seemed miraculously paved, clearly marked, wide, and exciting. However, the speed bumps, yield signs, potholes, construction zones, speed traps, shoulderless cliffsides, and tortuous curves we eventually encountered left us weary, haggard, and often looking for the nearest exit ramp. Much of our journey was spent white-knuckled and clinging in fear and desperation to our Father and Guide. When God placed me in that first classroom for emotionally disturbed children, I had no idea he was preparing my family and me for the adoption of our daughter Jackie. I couldn’t have known that the violence, mayhem, joys,  and victories in my classrooms were all formative, a sort of boot camp, for bringing mental illness into our home. 

When we were raising our daughter, the intensity of feelings that ran rampant and overtook our lives ranged from intense isolation to shame to confusion to feelings of outright insanity. Trying to navigate a broken system, being falsely accused (more than once) of child abuse, receiving regular phone calls and emails from school, endless counseling sessions, trying (and failing) to find the one right intervention that would finally cure our daughter, and living in a house where chaos and hostility prevailed, all took their toll. But through it all, we found comfort from a steady, present, loving God who could relate to the trials we were experiencing (Hebrews 4:15). And so we clung to him with all we had, because he was all we had. And he didn’t disappoint. His love has never failed, and his sovereignty and goodness are as sure as the changing of seasons.

If you are raising a child who is stricken with mental illness, you may know the heartache, intensity, and uncertainty of the day to day, and the helplessness and frustration of navigating a life full of disconnects in logic, embarrassing behavior, and fear for the future. God sees you, he knows you and your child, and he shares your pain. He is sovereign, he is good, and he has not left us alone in our affliction. 

This book is my effort to showcase a good God in a broken world, even a world that crushes the lives of little kids, and leaves parents heartbroken and wanting. Or to put it another way, I desire to exalt God in the lowest points in our lives,  to testify to his sufficiency and goodness, and to show that our good and noble desires in what he calls us to are penultimate to what must be our highest and primary desire: God himself.

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