The Drip Feed…Talking To Kids About Mental Health

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.

Trying to thrive

I didn’t find childhood the easiest, and I grew up in a family dotted with undiagnosed mental health problems. As a result I’ve always felt a little on the back foot with mental ill health; that it’s possibly lurking just around the corner and I’d be wise to do what I can to help protect myself.  I’m not sure if that’s the right or wrong way to view things, it’s just how I felt, but I guess it’s no different to avoiding the midday sun to protect against skin cancer.  I chose to follow a career in psychology so have probably read more on the subject than many, and thankfully over the years have picked up a few things that genuinely help me feel well.

Recently I was offering advice to a close friend with severe anxiety and OCD when it dawned on me that I sounded like a preaching health professional, churning out the same suggestions that she’d heard a hundred times before. It was falling on deaf ears, so instead I starting talking about me. I explained that everything I was suggesting was actually stuff that I do on a daily basis to help myself.  I don’t have the same level of anxiety as her but, like everyone, there are times when I feel mental illness knocking at my door. For me, keeping that door shut takes some effort.

The idea of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is not to focus on mental health problems, but on mental health and what helps us thrive, so I thought I would share some of the things that help me in case they help anyone else.

1. Diet

Cliché it may be but I try to eat well. There are a million research articles I could read I’m sure, but to me it’s logical…feed my brain cells the nutrients they need and they will probably fare better. I don’t do anything ground breaking; I cook from scratch, sling turmeric and seeds in just about everything, and I try and eat the rainbow. I’m not perfect – doughnuts and Coca Cola are my vice – but I do notice that if I eat rubbish for too many days my mood really suffers. A week of piling my plate sky high with vegetables seems to reset me. Alcohol, a depressant, gets the boot when I start to feel low.

2. Exercise

I exercise, a lot. I’ve done yoga at least once a week since I was 18.  If I don’t do it my body feels scrunched up and my mind feels cooped up – I wish I was poetic and could describe it better but I can’t.  Yoga just helps me feel better.  I exercise most days. An outsider probably assumes I exercise to stay fit or lose weight, but nope.  I’ve lost count of the number of trainers that have shouted at me because I’m not pushing myself hard enough or I’m not throwing up by the end of a session. Truth is I just don’t care…I’m not here to vomit; I’m here for the endorphins. If I get more toned in the process then that’s a nice bonus!

3. Sleep

I’m a terrible sleeper. Always have been but far worse since I’ve had children, and if I sleep badly my mood takes a nosedive.  Handily, I studied sleep during my degree and learnt a lot about sleep patterns and sleep hygiene. There are some principles that have stayed with me: ‘Hours before midnight are worth two after’ – I go to bed early. ‘Avoid blue light’ – there are no TVs, phones, or digital clocks in my room. ‘You only need to make up 25% of lost sleep’ – this last one stops me worrying too much when I’ve had a shocking night as it reminds me it’s not that hard to catch up.

4. Thoughts

I’m lucky to have had various stints of CBT throughout my career (theory being if I haven’t done it myself, how can I expect to teach people..fair point!), which has meant I developed insight into my personality and the way I think. I’ve spent years analysing and correcting my thoughts and for the most part I now have control of them. If my mood starts to darken I can usually apply some CBT principles and start to pick myself up again.

5. Talking

Despite banging on endlessly about the importance of talking I don’t actually do it that often, as I naturally prefer to listen.  If you ask me the right questions a tidal wave will come out, but most people don’t ask the right questions so more often than not I will stay quiet about my problems. However, I’m a thinker who analyses everything and I can drive myself round the twist if I don’t articulate those thoughts. If I need to talk but don’t want to talk to a human then I talk to myself.  I have conversations with imaginary people, I will happily rant away to myself, and I will talk a situation and my options through to myself until I feel at peace with it.  I appreciate it might sound mighty weird to some, but talking to myself really does make me feel better so I’ll stick with it!

6.  The news

I avoid the news. I might give the headlines a cursory once over but my knowledge of current affairs extends only as far as where the latest terror attack occurred, and I never read the details. Similarly I can’t watch violent films, and much of TV is a no go for me. When I watch something distressing, it seems my brain is unable to compartmentalise it. I’m not able to dissociate and the distressing information will stay with me for days, weeks, or even months. I know that horrendous things happen in the world, but to know it and to see it are two very different things. Yes it can be embarrassing not having a clue about politics, and my friends and family despair that we never go to the cinema or watch anything other than The Big Bang Theory on TV, but I’d prefer to spend my life embarrassed over distressed.

7. Social Media

Comparison is the thief of joy and social media is just one long comparison. A couple of years ago I was following hundreds of fitness people on Instagram. I found myself spending half my day looking at beautiful people doing yoga up a mountain in Peru with a perfect sunset in the background, or watching someone make yet another kale based ‘supermeal’.  Then I woke up one day and realised I was anxious…really quite anxious. If anything I have a propensity towards feeling depressed so anxiety was a new one on me, and it had crept up on me slowly.  I was anxious about whether I was exercising enough, I was anxious about my figure (even though logically I know you cant compare the body of a 37 year old mother of two with that of a 21 year old yoga teacher, all logic had gone out the window), and I was anxious every time I ate anything other than an avocado or chia seeds.  I deleted my Instagram account the same day, and after the initial withdrawal symptoms subsided I felt a million times better.  That’s not to say I don’t use social media, because in some ways I love it – I use it to talk to my friends, I read fascinating articles through FB/twitter, and at the moment social media is very helpful in letting people know about Perry Panda. But I now remember to see social media for the highlight reel that it is. I dip in and out, and if I feel rubbish I swerve it altogether.

8. People

It took me a long time to learn this about myself but I usually don’t find situations or events that stressful, it’s people.  I used to dread going into work because of a difficult colleague, I used to leave dinner dates with friends feeling drained or insecure, I used to put off making phone calls because I knew I’d end the call feeling terrible.  I have since learnt not to spend time with people that bring me down just because of a sense of duty or history. Social support is a huge protector against both mental and physical illness, and I really notice that when I spend more time with the people that make me happy, and less time with the people that don’t, I am far more content.

So there it is, a few of my personal self-help efforts in a nutshell. This list is by no means exhaustive, I just picked my top few as otherwise it could have been a very long blog. There are many other things I do on a daily basis, some big some small, but when it comes to staying well I really believe it all adds up. Every little helps.


Why children need an explanation

Despite affecting 1 in 4 people in any one year, mental health is still not something many people talk about.  Those suffering ill health can find it hard to explain their experiences, and family members are often unsure what to say to provide comfort and support.  Mental illness is complicated, sensitive, and at times overwhelming.  If adults cannot find the words to explain it to each other, it is easy to understand how families find it even harder to explain it to their children.

It is common for children to be left out of any discussions about depression, even though they live through the disruption it causes.  Some parents don’t know what to say so say nothing at all, and some feel they need to protect their children and hide the illness from them.  Although this is done with the best of intentions, it can actually do more harm than good.  Children are naturally observant and will notice changes in their parent’s mood and behaviour.  If these changes are not explained children will construct their own dialogue for what is happening, and often end up blaming themselves.

As well as worrying they are to blame, children may have additional concerns.  They can become preoccupied with fears such as whether they will ‘catch’ the illness, who will look after them if their parent goes into hospital, and whether they might need to go and live elsewhere.  Without reassurance, children can become upset and anxious.  A child may not tell an adult their fears, they might not know how to explain them or might be too scared, but parents may begin to notice changes in their child that reflect these fears.

To protect children it is crucial they are helped to understand they are not to blame, that the changes in their parent in no way reflect how their parent feels about them, and that they are not responsible for making their parent feel better.  Books can be a wonderful resource in helping achieve this.  Stories such as Perry Panda help a parent to open up a discussion with their child without having to find the words themselves, and they provide a space for the child to ask any questions they may have.  Parents will often find that on the first couple of occasions reading a book their child just listens, but they may start asking insightful questions later on.

Books can provide both reassurance to a child and comfort to a parent.  If you are struggling to know what to say, try using a book to start the conversation.