What Children Should Know About Mental Illness
When I was around twelve years old, I met the mother of a school friend of mine. The mother was one of the first (that I know of) people I met who was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. She had schizophrenia. The mom basically sat around the house will a strange smile or vacant expression on her face. Her hair was greasy or unkempt, and she did not seem to take care of her appearance. I had no idea what schizophrenia meant. I did feel compassion for the mother but was afraid of her strangeness. My friend felt ashamed of her mom’s condition and was angry with her father for allowing her to live in the house.
At that time many years ago, no one talked about mental illness. I never considered asking my parents about it because I thought that they did not know anything about it. Mental illness was a weird scary thing to be hidden and feared.
Nowadays, people are much more open about mental illness. Celebrities talk about struggles with conditions such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. New treatments and medications are enabling people with mental disorders to live in the community instead of being hidden in institutions. Children have more exposure to people with mental illness more than ever before.
Preparing to Talk to Kids About Mental Illness
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), it is challenging for parents to understand mental illness, let alone explain it to their children. There have been great advances in diagnosis and treatment, but there are is also many myths, misconceptions, stigma and fear associated with mental disorders. Many parents need to learn basic information about mental illness before discussing the topic with their children.
Be aware of the children’s needs and concerns
Parents should know what their children need to know and their concerns. They should also know how much knowledge and experience their children have with mental illness.
Have a basic knowledge about mental health conditions
Expect questions such as:
- What causes of mental illness
- Who develops these disorders
- When the condition shows symptoms such as strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, irritability, or sleep disturbances over a long period
- What treatments or medications are available
Communication Tips for Discussions About Mental Illness
- Communicate in a clear, straightforward way – keep it short
- Listen and watch how children react to the info
- Back up or slow down if the child seems upset or confused
- Reassure them that they are OK if they have concerns about their safety or the safety of others
Topics that may need to be addressed:
- Mental illness is similar to physical illness and should not be stigmatized or feared – it is nothing to be ashamed of
- Mental disorders are a fact of life that many people experience at one point
- Kids can become mentally ill, too, and half of mental conditions begin by the age of 14
- These conditions should be taken seriously and not be dismissed as a phase or something people with mental conditions can just “get over” through positive thinking, sunshine, or prayer
- People with mental disorders can recover with medication/and or treatment – the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome can be
- If parents has a mental disorder, children need to be told that their condition is not the child’s fault
- Most people with mental illness are not scary or dangerous
- People with these conditions can lead normal lives
As a child, I thought that mental illness was a mysterious thing to be feared and despised. When a school counsellor told my mother that I could benefit from intense treatment for severe depression, my mother went into full denial. Nothing was wrong with her kid! I felt intense shame and guilt about my condition. Fortunately, I had some a lot of support from peers, social workers, and mental health professionals to help me recover from this difficult time.
At that time, mentally ill people around me were stigmatized as being weak or evil. They were told that their condition was their fault because they were lacked character, were emotionally immature, or refused to “get over it.” Many people still believe in myths and misconceptions about mental illness.
While we have made strides over the last few years by becoming more open about this important topic, we still have a long way to go to reduce stigma and educate the public about mental health. One way to address these issues is through having open discussions and sharing information about these conditions. Some adults may resist this kind of openness, thinking that discussing mental health will encourage kids to develop suicidal thoughts or other mental disorders. They may fear that children will interpret their own emotional state as being a disorder. This way of thinking is changing, however. Some states in the U.S. are now mandating instruction about mental health in schools.
Parental instruction and communication on this topic can help children to feel comfortable and less fearful and mental conditions. It can also help parents and children to recognize symptoms and get treatment early, if needed. In the end, we all benefit from having a better understanding of mental illness.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Mental Health
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
National Mental Health Association (NMHA)
Talking to Kids About Mental Illness, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
8 things I want my kids to know about mental health, Metro, Lucy Dimbylow
What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health, Medium
5 Tips for Talking to Kids About Mental Illness, The Mighty, David Susman