Written by: Zersha Munir
It is a common misconception that a discussion on mental health must be carefully orchestrated.
It can be a daunting subject, and a parent shoulders the extra burden of knowing that they are laying the groundwork for a child’s understanding. A survey conducted by England-based mental health program Time to Change found that 1 in 5 parents “feel awkward” addressing the subject with his or her children. A review of the literature shows that it is important to alleviate the stress that accompanies the conversation in order to increase awareness (2013). Mental health is a fluid process and dealing with it can be complicated, regularly exasperating but wholly enlightening. Discussing it is no different.
At what age is mental illness relevant?
To parallel the previous statistic, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 1 in 5 children ages 13-18 have or will have a serious mental illness, and that 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. However, the same literature states that symptoms may develop and worsen at a much younger age, as suicide was listed the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10 – 24 (Mental Health Facts, 2014).
Children may encounter mental illness individually or through acquaintances and friends, and the condition is prominent in both literature and media. Being informed will allow children to best care for themselves and possibly help others. NAMI found that the average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years (Mental Health Facts, 2014). Imagine the difference between a child armed with knowledge of symptoms, resources and treatments, and one who is struggling to identify the condition.
These statistics show that mental illness affects children and it is important for adults to have the conversation.
Where to start?
NAMI’s page, “Learning to Help Your Child and Your Family” recommends that to help your child develop a positive relationship with mental health, you must do the same.
This literature explains the importance of knowing the facts surrounding mental health. One of the main issues with mental health is that it is wrongly assigned a negative connotation. It is often treated like a secret and that inhibits people from reaching out for help. By speaking openly about mental health, you serve as a positive role model for your child. If you want to address the subject early on, try incorporating information about conditions like anxiety and depression into lessons on emotions.
Another point put forth by NAMI’s literature is the importance of involving other adults in your child’s education. Let their support system—family members, teachers, coaches and friends’ parents—know that you are making a point to educate your child on mental health. All of these figures will have an influence on your child and can assist or advise you in accomplishing your goals. If you feel the need, consult a counselor or therapist.
Many sources in the literature recommend discussing mental health in the same way we discuss physical health. Literature published by mental health organization Here to Help states, “Comparing mental illness to other physical illnesses can help normalize the illness. If they have some knowledge of another chronic illness such as asthma, you can use it as an example to help children understand that ongoing care is needed and that people have re-occurrences of symptoms” (Chovel,1).
It’s less about what you say, but that you are saying it.
During LEAD’s review of the literature, mental illness was found to be an amorphous subject, and regardless of the source–scientific or otherwise–advice was offered hesitantly.
Each piece shared statistics and mock conversations but contained a disclaimer or ambiguous phrasing because, as mentioned before, mental health is a complicated journey. There is no formula, no sure-shot way to approach or open the subject, and no easy progression of topics or messages. There is a lot of pressure on parents to successfully address the subject, but it is a process and mistakes are part of it. Children will benefit in the long-run.
It is recommended that each parent performs research but rather than looking for a method, uses the information gathered to develop his or her own.
Starting the Conversation
The literature from Here to Help also recommends that you provide children with age-appropriate explanations (Chovel, 1). Consider tailoring your approach to your child’s needs and interests. For example, some kids will speak outright, while others best relate to issues upon seeing them depicted in a film. Consider word choice as well–is your child more emotionally-oriented, or analytical? Try to speak to them in a way that best caters to their mindset. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to other parents and see if and how they have spoken to their children.
Below are a few methods that can be adapted into your own approach:
- Consider asking your child about their experience with and exposure to mental illness. They may open up to you about a struggling friend and you may be able to assist them.
- Consider sharing details about your relationship with mental health. This is a give and take process, and if you open up first, your child may be more compelled to do so.
- If a major life event has occurred (a death, moving to a new place ) consider asking your child how are they are feeling and urge them to elaborate on why. Try to identify any underlying stressors in your child’s life and work through them with special care to alleviate any triggers. For instance, if your child lost a family member to a physical illness and fears that will lose you as well, explain the situation and how your condition differs.
- If dealing with a younger child, one approach is to relate feelings to the family pet or a stuffed animal as a point of reference.
- Show a film or read a book with children that features mental illness as a means to open discussion. Jo Witek’s In My Heart is one children’s book that explores a range of emotions including sadness and anger.
The goal of the conversation is to establish you as an ally. Regardless of whether your outreach is well- received or rejected, your child will recognize you a resource for understanding mental health. Continue to reach out as you see fit and monitor your child’s reaction to hone your approach into a method that best suits his or her needs. Overall, the literature asserts that establishing an open dialogue from a young age will best prepare your child to manage their mental health as they mature.
- Chovil, Nicole. “Talking to Children and Youth.” Talking to Children and Youth | Here to Help. Here to Help, 2004. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.
- “Learning to Help Your Child and Your Family.” NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness | Family
Members and Caregivers. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
- Mental Health Facts: Children & Teens. Digital image. NAMI. National Alliance on Mental Health, 3 June 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
- “Parents Still Lost for Words Where Mental Health Is Concerned.” Time To Change. Time To Change, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.