Now that the stigma of mental illness is slowly lifting, it’s time to talk to the children, says Sarah Owen
My sister Rebecca was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 17 years ago at the age of 22, and as mental illness goes she’s quite a way along the spectrum. Although she has had periods of stability, over the years she’s been variously suicidal, manic, psychotic, severely depressed and sectioned several times.
If my sons (Harry, 14, Jonah, 11 and Luke, seven) ask questions about their aunt – why is she in hospital? why does she keep interrupting them during a family meal? why did she not utter a word on Christmas Day? – I tell them that the chemicals in her brain sometimes get out of balance, causing mood swings. They understand that her condition isn’t a shameful secret or anything to be afraid of, but that the brain, just like any other organ in the body, can ‘get poorly’.
I don’t think my honest approach is particularly unusual these days. In a recent survey by the department of health, 70 per cent of respondents said they would feel comfortable talking to a family member or friend about mental health. And a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reports an 11.5 per cent reduction in average levels of discrimination against people with mental health problems.
I am grateful for this turning tide, but the reality is that ignorance and prejudice do still exist. The government-funded anti-stigma campaign Time To Change encourages us all to start a conversation about mental health. And what better place to begin than by teaching our children that if there’s somebody with mental illness in the family, they have an illness like any other – sometimes challenging, yes, but treatable and most certainly nothing to ashamed of.
What to say when…
Daphne Joseph, manager of the Young Minds Parents’ Helpline, says there are some golden rules when it comes to talking to children about mental illness.
1. Be honest. Hiding the truth from children in order to protect them will just make them worry more as they tend to imagine their own worst-case scenario. Rather, tune in to the individual child, use age-appropriate language and, above all, be honest. So, for an eight-year old, you might say something like, ‘Daddy’s feeling unwell and very, very sad.’ An older teenager might need a more detailed explanation, such as, ‘Your dad is experiencing severe depression because he has an imbalance in his brain’s neurochemistry.’’
2. Reassure them. Knowing that their loved one is being supported will stop a child worrying so much. So for a younger child, you might say, ‘The doctors in the hospital are looking after grandma to help her get better’; while a teenager will be comforted with something like, ‘It’s likely grandma will be in hospital for a couple of weeks while the doctors work out what medication will help’.
3. Listen. Whatever the age of the child, it’s important to allow them to ask questions in their own time. Remind them they can ask you anything. Also, regularly make time to chat about everyday things – often you’ll be talking about something else and they’ll take the opportunity to share how they’re feeling.
4. Point out that it’s not their fault. Children have a tendency to think that everything’s their fault, feel guilty and blame themselves. One of the most important things to say is, ‘This is not your fault. It’s an illness. Mum still loves you.’
Pre-school age: The Huge Bag Of Worries by Virginia Ironside
Primary school age: The Wise Mouse by Virginia Ironside
Secondary school age: Mental Illness In The Family, a fact sheet written by the charity Young Minds. Download it here
Sarah Owen is co-author of Bipolar Disorder – The Ultimate Guide