One thing the internet especially loves to critique is other people’s parenting — especially mothers. What happens when mom lives with schizophrenia? Do people react differently?
Join us as our host interviews Lauren Kennedy West, a woman who lives with schizophrenia and recently gave birth for the first time. She documented this on her popular YouTube channel, “Living Well with Schizophrenia.”
Lauren tells us what the reaction has been to the birth of her youngest child and the difference in responses to her mothering her older two children, who came in a package deal when she married her husband.
Lauren Kennedy West is a mental health advocate who lives with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. She has worked as a social worker in various capacities, including in the mental health care system. Lauren and her husband Rob started the YouTube channel ‘Living Well with Schizophrenia.’ It’s intended as both an educational resource and a tool to help reduce stigma and connect people living through similar challenges. The channel is a resource for those living with the illness, their loved ones, healthcare professionals, and people who just want to know more. In addition to the YouTube channel, Lauren has delivered talks to various audiences including healthcare professionals, law enforcement, students, etc.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast. Calling into the show today we have Lauren Kennedy West. Ms. Kennedy West, along with her husband Rob, started the very popular YouTube channel Living Well With Schizophrenia, intended as both an educational resource and as a tool to help reduce stigma and connect people living through similar challenges. In addition to the YouTube channel, Ms. Kennedy West is a dedicated mental health advocate and speaker, delivering talks to various audiences, including health care professionals, law enforcement and students. And today, we are excited to welcome her here. Ms. Kennedy West, welcome to the show.
Lauren Kennedy West: Hi, thank you.
Gabe Howard: Now you have documented your mental health challenges and struggles on your YouTube channel, but you also document your successes. And if I understand correctly, you recently had a child, is that correct?
Lauren Kennedy West: I did, yes.
Gabe Howard: Now there is a lot of controversy when it comes to people living with mental illness having children. And self-disclosure, I personally was ultimately too afraid to have children because of my bipolar diagnosis. And that’s one of the primary reasons I’m so intrigued by your story. What has been the feedback that you’ve seen?
Lauren Kennedy West: Primarily it’s been of support. Of course, there have been some people who have voiced concerns about how they believe that I shouldn’t have become a mother. As you said, it’s a bit of a controversial topic.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I’ve noticed is the Internet as a whole is that motherhood is a controversial topic, period. I’m always reminded of the time that the little boy fell into the animal cage at the zoo. Now, his mother was standing there. His father was standing there. And the whole Internet was like, well, that mother is terrible. And I thought to myself, his father was standing right there.
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: How come the narrative is always on Mom?
Lauren Kennedy West: I mean, I think it goes beyond just the Internet. You know, I think that pressure exists throughout society in terms of an increased amount of pressure on the mother. I have definitely felt that in terms of having a child with my illness. Ultimately, I think it’s kind of unfair.
Gabe Howard: Are you able just to tune it out and say, look, it’s my life. I’m going to do what I want?
Lauren Kennedy West: That’s what I try to do. But it gets to you a little bit, especially when people in my personal life voice concerns about whether my child is going to have schizophrenia or even about my capacity to be a mother because I have schizoaffective disorder. When it’s a little bit more close to home, I guess that’s kind of harder to just brush off and do my own thing regardless.
Gabe Howard: That is such an incredible point that you just raised, because I was thinking of all of my questions framed around you being an Internet celebrity. I was going to ask how you handled strangers on the Internet. I now
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Kind of want to know how you handle the people in your everyday life? The people who know you and love you?
Lauren Kennedy West: It kind of goes hand in hand because I wasn’t super open about my struggles with my illness before the YouTube channels. That kind of forced the conversations into my personal life as well. It’s been both a blessing and an added challenge, I guess, to overcome in terms of being able to be a little bit more vulnerable with the people in my life and being able to connect on a deeper level because I’m being more intimate about what I’m going through on a day to day basis. I think that the connection with the people in my life has increased, but, you know, it’s also created some more challenges because people don’t fully understand what schizoaffective disorder is or schizophrenia or bipolar or anything like that. Having to not defend myself but prove myself, I guess as a functioning person and as a mother and whatnot, kind of feels like an added pressure.
Gabe Howard: How do you respond to people who say that people with schizophrenia should not have children? I would love to think that you’re just like, Oh, to hell with you, and you just walk away. But I imagine it’s not that simple.
Lauren Kennedy West: There’s kind of two major reasons that people tend to throw that my way, whether it’s that they don’t think that I’m capable of being a present mother because of my illness, or whether it’s because they think it’s selfish to have a child who has a chance of getting the same illness as I do. I have three kids, actually, so I just had a baby. But my partner Rob also had two kids from a previous relationship. I love all my kids with my whole being and I do my very best to be there for them as continually as possible and to just be a stable, positive influence in their life. I think that’s all really any parent can strive to be in their child’s life. And why is it any different if I also am dealing with a struggle such as schizoaffective disorder? And then to people say, well, it’s selfish because your child may inherit your illness. You know, I grapple with that a little bit. I understand that that kind of is an unfair aspect to having a child. And all I can really say to that is just that if by chance my child does end up having schizoaffective disorder or schizophrenia or some kind of mental illness, really, I am the best possible person to raise them and to help guide them through navigating that illness. And hopefully, I would be able to see early warning signs or that kind of thing as early as possible and be able to kind of help and guide them through it.
Gabe Howard: I want to touch on the part where you have two other children who are not your biological children. My father is not my biological father. He’s just my real father. That’s how I always explain it. But we don’t share DNA. It doesn’t seem like anybody gave you any flak for raising children that weren’t yours biologically. It seems like all of the issues come in with your third child because of that biological connection.
Lauren Kennedy West: That does seem to be the case. It was a lot more supportive when I came out that I was a mother figure to the first two kids in my life, and people could kind of wrap their heads around that a little bit more because they weren’t biologically mine, so I couldn’t pass my illness onto them. But yeah, that has definitely come up as more of a sore spot with my third child because they are biologically connected to me.
Gabe Howard: I ultimately made the decision not to have children because I was so terrified of passing bipolar disorder onto my child. But I made that decision very young, and as I got older, I realized, well, now, now, wait a minute. I was so worried about passing bipolar disorder on that I decided not to have kids. But of course, my parents don’t have a mental illness. We can’t figure out where Gabe came from. The mental illness isn’t present on my biological father’s side. It’s not present on my mother’s side. And yet here I am. Which is all to say that, hey, sometimes bad stuff just happens. I wished
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: I would have understood that sooner because maybe I would have made a different decision. The reality is, is you living with mental illness is not a lock that you will pass it on to your child. In fact, depending on which statistics you read, the odds are really in your favor that you will not pass it along. Did that go into your decision making or were you just like, Listen, I just wanted to have a child and things are scary and lots of stuff could happen?
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah. A lot of people are quoting to me on the YouTube channel that like, Oh, there’s a 50/50 chance that they’re going to get it because I have it and my partner doesn’t, but that’s not the case. So I believe it’s 13% if the mother has it and the father doesn’t. That’s a lot higher than I would like the odds to be, but it’s not as high as people assume. I think it’s interesting that you decided not to have kids, because I actually made a similar decision when I was younger and I didn’t want to have biological children for that reason, too. But as I grew older and learned how to manage my illness better, it kind of just dawned on me that there’s obviously no guarantee that my child is going to have the same challenges that I do. But if they do, like I said, I think I’m really well equipped to help guide them through it because I think that’s something that was really missing from my experience of navigating the illness is that there was just a lot of not understanding what was going on and just struggling through it on my own. And so if I can help them through that, that would be wonderful.
Gabe Howard: Obviously, you are very happy that you had a child. Your husband, Rob, is happy that you had a child.
Lauren Kennedy West: Mm hmm.
Gabe Howard: Does that help mitigate all of the criticism when you just focus on your own family and your own joy?
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah, definitely. Obviously, the same sort of concerns come up in my own head around, you know, being worried that my child is going to grow up to have schizophrenia, but really just trying to, like, live in the moment as much as possible and just take in all the love that is permeating through our family right now and just taking it as a win for right now.
Gabe Howard: And I think it’s a great win. Families have struggles, and I think that sometimes when people look at other families, they’re trying to predict what struggles you might have and fix them ahead of time. And that’s just a fool’s errand, right? I mean, can’t we do
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: This in all families? You don’t have enough money. You don’t have enough education. Your job is not stable. You’re too young. You’re too old. It seems like this criticism just repeats itself and just the reason changes. Have you noticed that with the schizophrenia as well, that it’s just frankly unoriginal criticism?
Lauren Kennedy West: You made a great point. Like every single person on this earth is going to go through challenges. And, you know, I’m not unique in that aspect. It’s just the fact that everyone is going to face challenges. So it’s a little bit tired that this stuff keeps coming up. If we’re constantly telling people not to have kids because their kid might face a challenge, well, our human race would die.
Gabe Howard: Ms. Kennedy West, thank you so much for your candor on your decision to have a child. But let’s go ahead and switch gears. The child’s here. You’re raising all of your children, and now you have to start making some decisions because there are some unique struggles as a parent who is living with severe and persistent mental illness. And I think one of the biggest ones that maybe pops into people’s head is what happens if you’re in crisis and you’re unable to care for your children?
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah. So that has actually come up. I was hospitalized in October of 2019 and everyone has asked, well, what happened to your kids? Did they see you completely psychotic? And what was that like for them? But they were at their other parent’s house, so they didn’t see any of what happened in terms of the police coming and bringing me to the hospital and all that kind of stuff. I’m very, very grateful for that. And I think that that’s kind of been something that I really learned the importance of, is that it’s a bit of a cliche that it takes a village to raise a child or to raise kids, but it really does, and especially when you’re living with an added difficulty, such as a chronic mental illness. I really learned the importance of having supportive people in your life who can jump in and help whenever it’s needed. And I definitely regard our co-parents in that way as supportive figures in our life who are there to support us in terms of managing the kids if something happens or that kind of thing, there’s other people in our life who we definitely lean on as well.
Gabe Howard: One of the things I think about from my past is when I saw my father have an asthma attack, I mean, he turned a different color, for Pete’s sake. He couldn’t breathe. My mom was freaked out, and that was obviously a traumatizing experience. I was very young. We were at the swimming pool, so of course we were having fun and it turned on a dime. But I wouldn’t trade my life, my brother and sister’s life or my father’s life in order to have avoided that. Are we just so adverse to children seeing negativity or trauma that we just would rather not have children than risk them seeing something, for lack of a better word, scary?
Lauren Kennedy West: I think so. I think that we kind of tiptoe around difficult subjects a lot, you know, not just with children, with adults, too. And I think that’s a problem. You know, we need to be more open about challenges that people experience and about difficult topics. And so we’re really trying to start having conversations with the kids about these more difficult topics. They can’t understand what schizoaffective disorder is quite yet and they can’t really understand what schizophrenia is either. But they’re starting to get more of an idea because we’re having these conversations and hopefully, they’ll be able to understand a bit more earlier on about some of the difficulties that I face and likewise some of the difficulties that their other parents face and whatnot, and just trying to have more honest conversations about difficult aspects of life.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Lauren Kennedy West discussing being a mother who lives with schizophrenia. We talked about a crisis point where you were hospitalized. But, you know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Is there ever a situation in your day-to-day life where you think to yourself, okay, I need to put myself first and my child second in order to prevent the crisis point, to prevent the issues? And do you struggle with that? How do you work that out with your co-parents? What’s that process like when you know that you need to do self-care, but, of course, you also have the responsibilities of motherhood?
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah. It’s very, very hard. You always want to put your kids first, and it’s a very hard thing to wrap your head around when you have to put yourself first over your kids. But you’re right that prevention is so, so important. If I do find that I’m slipping or I’m starting to struggle a lot more, my partner Rob is really, really great at supporting me through that and encouraging me to take space or care for myself in whatever way I need to in order to be able to come back and be fully present for our kids.
Gabe Howard: Another thing that I think about when I think of parenthood is babies and sleep. And I know how important sleep hygiene is to manage my bipolar disorder. Routine is important. Sleep is important. And these are things that babies just oh, do they mess up. How do you manage the lack of routine and the lack of sleep with being a new mom?
Lauren Kennedy West: It’s been hard. I think I really, really struggled with the lack of routine and just kind of constantly reacting to our baby’s needs and whatnot. That threw me askew for a little bit. And then the sleep, definitely the sleep was really, really hard, especially for the first few weeks when our baby was needing to get up to feed five or six times a night. But my partner Rob has been just kind of an angel in terms of understanding how important sleep is for me to stay well. And so he’s definitely taken on the brunt of the load in terms of waking up to feed at night. And he’s been really, really wonderful in that regard. Even now we do kind of a 2/1 trade-off where he takes our baby two nights, and then I take them one night and then he takes two nights and then I take one night. It’s not fair because it’s not 50/50 split, but we’ve kind of figured out what works for us in order to both try to stay as well as possible.
Gabe Howard: And of course, it’s important to realize that it’s not fair today. But raising children is a multiple decade thing. So maybe when the child is a teenager, that’ll flip. You’ll take the child or the teenager who’s angry two days and he’ll take the teenager who’s angry one day.
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: It’s a long term thing, right? Everybody’s worried about the here and now, but raising children’s forever.
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about that for a moment. Everybody talks about whether or not somebody living with serious and persistent mental illness should have a baby. And it’s always a baby. And they say things like, well, the baby is this, the baby is this. But what about somebody living with schizophrenia raising a ten-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 20-year-old? Have you thought that far ahead?
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah, definitely. I also have a eight, almost nine-year-old and a six-year-old. And there’s definitely been challenges that I faced in relation to managing my illness as well as raising three kids now. But honestly, I think that the major thing that I’ve learned is that living with a chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia, has really just increased my capacity for empathy and compassion. And I think that’s really lended itself well to parenting. You know, I feel like I’ve been able to have a deeper connection with my kids as a result of the experiences that I’ve gone through. And I hope that that will just continue into their teenage years as well and then into their adult years.
Gabe Howard: Talking specifically about the six and eight-year-old. What do they know about mom’s life with schizophrenia? What have you taught them?
Lauren Kennedy West: They know that I have schizophrenia. We’ve kind of just kept the conversations more general in terms of trying to lay a foundation and teach them about mental health and about the fact that we all have mental health. And they know that there is also mental illnesses. And Mom, I have a mental illness called schizophrenia. They don’t know the specifics too much yet about what exactly schizophrenia is, but they know sometimes that, oh, mom needs a little bit more rest. Yeah, that’s kind of the extent of what they know, but we’re definitely trying to encourage more conversations as they get older and letting them know more specifically what I face on a day-to-day basis. And they know that we have a YouTube channel about it too. So I know one day maybe we’ll share those videos with them too.
Gabe Howard: Along those same lines, someday they will be old enough to watch the YouTube videos without Mom and Dad’s permission.
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Do you feel any particular way about that when your teenage children are watching something that you made today ten years from now? I’m just curious as to how you and your husband feel about that, that prospect?
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah. I mean, that’s coming up already. You know, we tried to shield them from the Internet for as long as possible, but they’ve been in online school for the past year as a result of the pandemic. And they’re getting more comfortable with navigating the Internet. And YouTube is into their repertoire now. It’s probably going to be even earlier than their teenage years that they’re going to see these videos. That’s why I really want to initiate these conversations with them in person before they see some of the more, the videos discussing more of my experiences with difficult things. But at the same time, I think I’m okay with them seeing those videos too, as a means of hearing directly from me, in a recording, but directly from me, what living with different aspects of the illness entails, what my experiences have been like. I’m proud of all the videos that we’ve made in terms of the educational component to it and sharing it in a way that is both real but also, you know, encouraging to people who may be experiencing similar things. So I think I’m okay with them seeing those videos whenever they do.
Gabe Howard: You know, I’ve talked to my parents a lot about their feelings about what I went through, but of course, I’m hearing it with some distance between the event and today. If somebody could have stuck a camera in their face and said, How do you feel about Gabe being hospitalized? And I could have heard it in the moment with the feelings, with the whatever, I think that would be different. And in this way, I, I believe that it’s going to be a gift for your family in many ways.
Lauren Kennedy West: Yeah. Because, you know, I want to be honest with my kids about things that I’ve experienced and difficulties I face. You know, it might be a nice tool in terms of helping them to understand where I was at in each of those moments. And then, you know, I also have videos on there that are kind of letters to my kids. And so I’m really excited for them to see videos like that where I’m being a lot more vulnerable in terms of difficulties that I’m facing, in terms of parenting or, you know, fears or worries that I have in terms of parenting. I’m excited for them to get that glimpse into my real thoughts and whatnot.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that you’ve talked about on your YouTube channel is struggles that you’ve had with law enforcement. And I know that one of the many roles of parents is teaching children about dangers that exist in the world. And of course, for the average parent, I think they just say, hey, if you’re in danger, call law enforcement, call the police. Does your struggles color that conversation with your children? What will you say to your children about the role of law enforcement in our society?
Lauren Kennedy West: I mean, yeah, we’ve already started having those conversations, especially what happened this past year with the Black Lives Matter movement, and that increased societal understanding that maybe cops are not always the best people to respond to more social crises, and that includes mental health. And so we’ve actually started having conversations with them about that, where the police are definitely there to help you if you ever need help or you’re ever in danger or that kind of thing, and try not to create a sense of fear or mistrust around police, because that’s not what I want to do. But just letting them know that police aren’t always the most appropriate people to respond to crises, and that includes mental health crises. It might be better to include a social worker or a therapist or a psychologist or a psychiatrist in those teams that are responding to mental health care. And they can kind of understand that and they agree. I think we’re having a little bit more nuanced conversations already about the role of law enforcement. I’m excited that they’re going to be a little advocates themselves for change when they grow up.
Gabe Howard: I like how you said you’re excited that they’ll be little advocates for change. What change do you hope your children’s generation sees that your generation hasn’t seen yet or we’re on the cusp of seeing?
Lauren Kennedy West: I hope that when my kids come about and especially if my kids need access to mental health care, that it’s going to be a lot more patient directed. I think right now there is definitely still a inherent power imbalance in the way the mental health care system operates, where the patient goes in to see a psychiatrist and they’re told what they have and what they need to do to treat that. And they’re kind of just expected to comply. That’s even a term that is thrown around oftentimes. They are compliant or non-compliant, and I don’t think that those should be words that are being used in terms of health care. I think that a patient, a person accessing mental health care should have a lot more autonomy over their care plan and their recovery plan. And so I would really like to see a lot more ownership over navigating the mental health care system for the patient and the patient being empowered to make their own choices and to be as educated as possible in terms of their choices. And the psychiatrists and doctors referring more to the wishes of the patient, because everybody’s experience with mental health is going to be a little bit unique. That should also include their experiences with recovery plans and care plans. So that’s definitely a big thing that I would like to see changed. And then also there’s still a huge amount of stigma. We’re seeing a lot of awareness campaigns coming forth, which are really great, but oftentimes they still center on things like depression and anxiety, which are great. I think it’s wonderful that there’s a lot more awareness and understanding about those things, but it definitely needs to get taken further too, in terms of encompassing some of the more severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, and really demystifying those ones as well and working to reduce stigma around those as well.
Gabe Howard: Well, I sincerely am happy that you are raising the next generation of advocates because I am positive that you will do a stellar job.
Lauren Kennedy West: Aww, thank you.
Gabe Howard: You’re very welcome. Now, Ms. Kennedy West, where can folks find you online? Where can they find your YouTube channel?
Lauren Kennedy West: On YouTube, we are called Living Well with Schizophrenia. We also have an Instagram which is @livingwellwithschizophrenia and the Twitter also which is @LWSchizophrenia. Those are kind of the main places that you can find us, but definitely check out our YouTube channel, Living Well with Schizophrenia.
Gabe Howard: I highly recommend that my listeners check it out as well. Ms. Kennedy West, thank you so much for being here.
Lauren Kennedy West: Thank you so much for having me.
Gabe Howard: Oh, you’re very welcome. And a big thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as a nationally recognized public speaker. I would love to be at your next event. You can get my book on Amazon or you can grab a signed copy with free swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Please subscribe or follow the show. It’s absolutely free and recommend the show to a friend. Email, social media and hey, word of mouth still works. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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