While every family’s story is unique, there are universal themes in every family’s struggle that make us more alike than not. The movie No Letting Go does a remarkable job of depicting 8 themes happen to families with childhood mental illness.
In one of the most famous opening lines in literature, Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina begins: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” If that were true, families dealing with childhood mental illness would fall into the “happy” category, because so many of their experiences are alike. I realized this when I watched the movie No Letting Go with my wife and two other parents earlier this year. Each of our three families has had a different experience with a childhood mental health problem and yet we all felt this movie about another family’s struggles told our story, too.
No Letting Go is about one family’s struggle with childhood bipolar disorder. There were times during my own family’s journey when we felt isolated and bewildered by the challenges of our child’s mental health issues. Knowing that other families go through similar struggles can be a great source of comfort and support. This is what many of us felt the night we saw No Letting Go at the Darien Library in Darien, CT.
While every family’s story is unique, there are universal themes in every family’s struggle that make us more alike than not. The movie No Letting Go does a remarkable job of depicting some of the most important of them.
#1 Mom as Primary Caregiver
The movie focuses on the Spencers’ middle son, Tim, who experiences multiple mental health problems before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teen. But it is really the story of the mother, Catherine, who becomes his main support and caregiver. Catherine takes the lead in organizing play dates, helping with homework, interacting with school officials and dealing with Tim’s behavioral issues. Dads also have an important role to play. But for school-age children with mental health issues much of the care and the stress of child-rearing falls on mothers.
#2 Condescending School Officials
Many childhood mental health problems first come to light when a child refuses to go to school. This is a problem that occurs at home, out of sight of educators. So why do teachers and administrators always assume that the problem is ineffective parenting? We see this early in No Letting Go, when one uninformed educator suggests that Catherine’s own anxieties may be the real issue behind Tim’s attendance problems. When the Spencers take him out of public school we get the sense that school officials would rather see him go than admit their failure to provide him with an appropriate learning environment.
#3 Judgmental Neighbors and Acquaintances
At several points in the movie Catherine must endure the veiled criticism and unhelpful advice of the busybodies in her social circle who have no idea of what her family is going through. When Tim has a meltdown on the playing field and Catherine chases after him, the other soccer moms quickly change their tune from falsely supportive to cuttingly cruel. This scene is a perfect example of the kind of judging and social shaming cast on parents of children with mental health problems.
#4 Marital Discord and Polarized Parenting
A child’s mental health problems can place an enormous strain on a marriage. In many families one parent may be more understanding and sympathetic, while the other is more concerned with adherence to the rules. Sometimes parents polarize, with one parent being seen as too soft and “coddling” and the other viewed as unaccepting. In No Letting Go, Catherine and her husband start out at opposite ends of the acceptance-expectations continuum, and slowly come together as they develop a better understanding of the problem. A critical, unsupportive spouse can make the stress of raising a child with mental illness almost unbearable, while an understanding spouse can be a parent’s greatest source of strength and comfort. Many couples dealing with a mental health crisis experience some of both, as we see in the movie.
#5 Affected Siblings
The scene in which Catherine must physically restrain Tim as he screams that he wants to kill himself and his younger brother, Jesse, was for me the most disturbing in the movie, and also the most real. The audience experiences this scene from Jesse’s viewpoint as he becomes the target of his older brother’s violent emotions, retreats to the refuge of a bathroom, and returns a moment later to find Tim sobbing about how sorry and out of control he feels. The oldest brother, Kyle, reacts to Tim’s illness with anger and resentment, blaming the problem on his parents. These are common responses to a sibling’s mental health problems, which makes it all the more painful for parents to witness and accept.
#6 High Cost of Treatment
The Spencers live in a big house in a prosperous community, but after several years of treatment and special schools for Tim the cost of care has begun to drain their resources. The total cost of treatment and care for a serious mental health disorder is not fully covered by most insurance plans. Many American families take on debt to put their kids through college. But a child with mental health problems may not have the chance to go to college if she doesn’t get the help she needs. Some families have to borrow money or tap into that college fund just to pay for treatment.
#7 Changing Diagnoses, Changing Treatments
Tim’s problems seem to start at the age of ten when he experiences extreme stage fright during a school production. Over the course of several years, he is diagnosed and treated for anxiety, then for depression, and finally for bipolar disorder. Finding the right diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment to begin, but to the family it can feel like the news keeps getting worse and worse. It takes the Spencers years to get an accurate diagnosis and find the right treatment for their son. The good news is that when Tim finally gets the help he needs, he starts to progress and turn the corner on his illness.
#8 One Good Friend
During the course of the movie, Catherine struggles to help her child while having to deal with condescending educators, judgmental acquaintances, ineffective providers, and other family members who don’t always understand, on top of her own personal health crisis. The one consistently positive influence in her life is her best friend, Lisa, who always seems to understand and is there for Catherine when she needs her the most. My wife says there have been many “Lisas” in her life who gave her the support and encouragement she needed when our family’s situation was at its worst. Every parent who struggles with a family mental health crisis needs as many Lisas as they can find. But in the darkest moments One Good Friend will do.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than twenty percent of Americans will experience a mental health problem during a given year. Virtually every family in America is affected by a mental health problem at some point in its members’ lives. Perhaps this is the one way that we are all alike.
If No Letting Go has the ring of truth it is because the writer and producer Randi Silverman lived the events depicted in the movie. The story is based on her personal experience raising a child with bipolar disorder (played in the movie with amazing sensitivity by his younger brother Noah). At the same time, it is a universal story which all families that have struggled through a childhood mental health crisis can relate to.
—Jay is Vice President of Laurel House, Inc., and Editor in Chief of www.rtor.org, a mental health website for families. He writes about his family experience of bipolar and other mental health disorders in his blog The Family Side.