How to Talk to Kids About Mental Illness

I participated in a campaign on behalf of Mom Central Consulting for the California Mental Health Services Authority. I received a promotional item as a thank you for participating. The views and opinions expressed here are my own.

As parents, we want our children to come to us with any problem they may have, big or small.  We tell our kids that they can tell us anything, and that no matter how shameful they think their thoughts may be, how silly their questions may sound, asking questions and asking for help is always better than staying silent.  Alfie and I try to keep the lines of communication going by starting conversations about important issues and sensitive topics -- bullying, making friends, peer pressure, smoking, drugs, etc... -- whenever an opportunity comes up.

The same goes for mental illness.  There is so much stigma associated with mental illness that it is especially important for parents to let kids know that it is okay for them to talk to people when they feel like they might be struggling.  Think your kids might be too young to be thinking about mental illness?  Not so!  Did you know:

· Nearly one-third (31-32%) of California’s 9th and 11th grade public school students reported extended feelings of sadness/hopelessness in the last year. Among younger students, more than one in four (28%) 7th graders reported such feelings.

· Research shows that half of all mental disorders start by age 14 and three-quarters start by age 24.3

· But, an average of 6 to 8 years pass after the onset of mood disorder symptoms – 9 to 23 years for anxiety disorder symptoms – before young people get help.

How can parents talk to their kids about mental illness? Here are some great conversation openings for talking with your kids about mental illness:

Current events
We let our kids watch the news with us every day, and we answer all their questions in an open, honest, age-appropriate way.  When events come up in the news that deal with mental illness, we don't treat it any differently.  For example, when news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death came up on the news, we took the opportunity to talk to our kids about Hoffman's struggles with addiction and how it doesn't necessarily mean he was "weak".  Also, when the kids saw Russell Crowe at the Oscars a few years ago, we listed some of our favorite Russell Crowe movies, including A Beautiful Mind. John Nash is the perfect example of how people living with mental heath challenges are not defined by their condition; in fact, it is just a small part of who they are.

Every day observations
Seeing homeless people on the street or people begging for change can be a good opportunity to talk to your kids about the circumstances in life that got them there.  We tell them that some of them may be suffering from mental illness, and that the appropriate response should be compassion, not scorn.

Personal Experience
We know a family who have suffered greatly as a consequence of one of their members' mental illness.  When tragedy struck their lives, it was very personal since our kids know the person in question.  They had many questions, and we tried to talk to them as honestly as possible.  We told them that mental illness is just as much a condition as cancer or any other disease -- the person really suffers, and his family suffers right along with him.  It was important for us to let our kids know that our friend had the courage to seek help for his condition, which allowed him to spend time with his family before the disease overwhelmed him.

For me, the most important things for my children to walk away with are:
* Mental illness is a disease, just like any other, and there's no shame in admitting that you might suffer from it
* People with mental illnesses deserve compassion and understanding, not scorn
* If they feel unusually depressed, sad, or hopeless, or if they see that any of their friends are feeling this way, it's important to talk to someone about it.

Remember, children follow their parents' behavior and attitudes, so it's important to examine your own actions and beliefs!

The more that families can spread this message, the better the chances that a person with mental illness will be able to seek the help that he or she needs!  To help remove the stigma associated with mental illness, join the Each Mind Matters movement and pledge to be a change agent!

Disclosure: I participated in a campaign on behalf of Mom Central Consulting for the California Mental Health Services Authority. I received a promotional item as a thank you for participating. The views and opinions expressed here are my own.

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