We have all heard it by now, that 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness at some point in their life. This statistic means that every child – every single one – will know someone experiencing mental ill health, if not now then in the future. There’s also a 25% chance they will become ill themselves. In families where a parent or sibling is ill, children have to live with the disruption mental illness can cause, and childhood is rife with issues such as bullying that can leave children vulnerable. Research now shows that half of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 24 (Mental Health Foundation). So, when we think about how to prevent mental illness we probably need to think about childhood.
Why, therefore, do so few of us talk to our children about mental health? When I was growing up, ill relatives were described as having a ‘nervous breakdown’ or ‘funny turn’, alcohol problems were brushed off as ‘she just likes a whiskey’, and nowadays my parents still describe their friends who are struggling as ‘just a bit stressed’. Mental illness certainly wasn’t discussed in my family, and most people I speak to admit it isn’t something they ever talk about at home. It also isn’t a subject in most schools despite head teachers reporting an increase in issues like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Schools of course have their place and mental health education would be fantastic, but as with most things education probably needs to begin at home.
Ideally we don’t want to wait until someone in the family is ill, or reaching crisis point, to try and explain mental illness; it’s often a stressful and chaotic time and conversations with children can get lost. Equally we don’t really want to wait until a child is confused and upset to attempt to explain parental depression and how the brain can go wrong. As a society we don’t wait until a child breaks their leg to tell them what a broken leg is, and we don’t usually wait until they get diabetes to talk to them about diet, so why do we do it with mental health?
I have recently read some great articles giving tips on how to talk to children about your own mental illness (for example ‘Explaining Depression To A Child’ – The Blurt Foundation Oct 2017) so I wont repeat and reinvent the wheel. But in all honesty I think it should start before that, and we should drip feed information from as young as possible. In my house I am attempting that drip feed.
At home if we talk about exercise it’s not just about its importance physically, but also about endorphins and how good it makes us feel. When the kids moan about an early night I tell them they need sleep not only because they are tired and need rest, but also that their brain processes emotions overnight and they need a decent amount of sleep to feel happy. I don’t just say that sugar is bad for their teeth, but also bad for their brain and explain how it affects their mood. Vegetables and fish aren’t on the plate just because they are good for the body, but also because they are super foods to feed the brain the nutrients it needs. My kids know I like baths because they relax me, avoid the news because it stresses me, and I need to walk the dog for some silence.
When you start to look for it there are opportunities everywhere. When we watched the Invictus Games we didn’t just talk about the physical injuries they could see, we talked about PTSD. When we see a mum looking tired and sad I don’t just mention the lack of sleep, I also try and explain the impact of becoming a mother and why some mums develop PND. Inside Out is my favourite film as it beautifully explains thoughts and how the brain processes memory…my kids have watched it many times.
We talk a lot about moods, and how people might feel in certain situations. I’m trying to teach empathy, trying to teach them the signs that someone might be struggling, and trying to help them feel confident asking their mates if they are ok. I’m trying to get them to start thinking about the things that cause them stress, and what they can do to help themselves or others if they feel sad. My son is very competitive and really struggles with losing, so we’ve recently come up with some simple CBT breathing techniques he can use to help him regain his composure. This is only a tiny thing right now, but I hope it might help him if he ever needs strategies to help with anxiety in the future.
I don’t know if this drip feed is the right approach, but I know it can’t hurt. I also don’t think it really matters what we say to our children about staying mentally healthy as long as we say something; it’s the silence on the subject that’s the problem. The more open we are, and the more we normalise talking about mental health, the more likely someone is to speak up and seek help early. That can only be a good thing.
For my part I have noticed lots of small things…my children will talk often about how people feel, they have openly asked me if I had PND without any of the confusion or shame that often applies, and recently after my dog died and I cried constantly my son suggested I go and see a psychologist because talking about it might make me feel better. He’s 7. I took that as a sign we’re heading in the right direction.