It’s no secret that mental illness has been on the rise for decades. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the numbers are staggering:
1 in 5 adults in America experience a mental illness.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
20% of teens ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition.
Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for people ages 10-24.
While mental illness is discussed more today than ever before, a stigma still exists, which is why it’s important that parents—particularly if your family is dealing with mental health concerns—talk openly about mental health. Discussing these topics can help kids better understand what is happening when people close to them deal with mental illness and help them feel comfortable coming to you with questions and concerns. Here’s how to start the conversation.
Don’t be afraid to bring up mental health.
There’s no right or wrong way to bring up mental health with your kids, but it may seem like a difficult topic to broach. If you can, connect the conversation to what is happening in your kid’s life, such as a family member, a friend or even a parent who may be dealing with mental health issues. Another option: Celebrities who speak out about mental health can provide an opportunity to bring the subject up; or you could watch a movie or TV show that has a character who is struggling with mental illness. Remember: Don’t shy away from the topic. Ultimately, talking about mental illness should be no different than discussing physical health concerns.
Educate yourself and share the knowledge.
Starting with simple facts can help a child understand that mental illness is real—even if a person doesn’t have a fever or other obvious symptoms. You can also cite statistics about how common mental illness is. Knowing how widespread mental health issues are can help prevent kids from feeling like there is a stigma. Make it clear that these health issues don’t have to be a secret and help your kids understand that like physical illnesses that are more commonly discussed, mental illness is also treatable.
Keep the conversation age appropriate.
Like most tough topics, how you talk to your kids about mental health will depend on their age and maturity level. For young kids, keep it simple and connect to health issues and emotions they already understand—like feeling sad or not having the energy to do things we typically want to do, like when you have a cold or the flu. Older kids can handle more specifics and will have more difficult questions. You’ll also want to ensure that preteens and teens aren’t getting misinformation from peers. Whatever the age of the child, be responsive and open about the topic.
Make sure your child feels safe and loved.
These conversations can be difficult to have, particularly if your child is dealing with a family member or parent who is suffering from a mental illness. Provide reassurance that a child is not responsible for another person’s mental health issues and that it is not their job to “fix” it. Make sure they feel safe and comfortable during these discussions so that they know they always come to you for support and guidance on these topics. Recognize their reactions to the information—be prepared to check in with them about how they feel during these conversations, if they need to ask questions or if they want information repeated or explained differently.
Seek out a professional to help have the conversation.
Seeking the advice of a professional is never a bad idea, particularly if mental illness is affecting your family. Be proactive and consult your child’s pediatrician or school counselor to help you find the resources you need. This also shows your child that is always OK to ask for help from a mental health professional.
Keep the conversation going.
Like most things with parenting, talking about mental health is not a one-and-done conversation. Even though these tips can be helpful, there’s no set way for when, where and how to discuss mental health with your kids. But if you’re open, honest and supportive when you approach the topic with them, you’ll be off to a good start.