I'm a parent. My little boy, as I write this, is 7 (going on 25). I love him more than anything. He's my world and, together with my wife, we're doing our best to raise him so he will grow into a balanced, caring, polite, respectful, young man, ready for whatever the world can through at him. If fate steps in and he ends up becoming a multi-millionaire Premier League footballer and keeps us in the style we're accustomed too, then even better!
He's too young to understand that Dad has PTSD, anxiety and depression, or even what those things are. He certainly sees the boxes of pills I take on my bedside table and he 'gets' that I need to take them, but I doubt he really knows why. That won't always be the case. One day, sooner rather than later, I'm going to have to have 'the chat' with him. Not about the 'birds and the bees', but about the 'brain and the bewilderment' that Dad goes through.
I'm both terrified and excited at the prospect of talking about my mental health with him. It's a balancing act isn't it. I don't want to go into the gory details, but he needs to know enough to understand it.
Talking about mental health is essential. It's something that we believe passionately about here. It's all too often avoided for fear of looking weak or feeling inadequate. Neither of those things are true, but when you're talking to a child about them, how do you even start? It's something I've been thinking a lot about lately, especially since we launched the site. So here's what I've come up with.
These are part of our famous (i.e. not famous) 'Men Tell Top 10' tips, these ones primarily aimed at talking to your children about mental health. The caveat is that obviously all children are different (apart from identical twins ;-) and you will know your child better than anyone. It's also obvious that kids range in age and maturity, so this information will need to be applied sensibly and at an appropriate level to the children themselves, so use your noggin!
1. Knowledge Is Power
We acknowledge that talking about your mental health is hard at times. We know that, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't talk about it at all. Who would you rather have teaching your children the facts about mental health? Would you rather let them read the sensationalist headlines in the tabloids, or the inaccurate schoolyard banter they may hear at school? Hearing about it is one thing, learning about it is quite another.
Arming your children with the appropriate facts will help them to understand what it means. It will break down the taboo of talking about mental heath at all. Who better than Mum or Dad to deliver the information they will take in and absorb. It will also foster in them the belief that mental health isn't something to be ashamed of. It can (and should) be discussed openly.
2. Familiarity Breeds Content
When it comes to mental health, no-one is an expert (apart from my wife, she knows everything! ;-). Seriously though, when talking about your mental heath. it's OK not to know the answer to some of the questions you might get asked. And you will get asked some. When you don't have or know the answer immediately, you can actually use that as a bonding exercise to find the answer together. We've got a whole range of top-quality information at very reasonable prices (OK, they're free) right here.
Talking about it can be a little awkward, a little intimidating and even a little embarrassing, but so what? I went for a vasectomy not long ago which, I can assure you, was no fun either! Seeing the Doctor hacking away at 'mini-me' with a machete for hours....sheesh! but I digress. If you're unsure of what to say next, just be open and honest about it. Being open to your condition and how it makes you feel will only help the situation.
3. Choose Your Time
You might be dreading the time you're going to talk about it, but that might be half the problem. When you're ready to talk, the ideal opportunity might not be sitting around the table like you're having a board meeting. Taking the formality and gravitas out of the situation might make it easier to discuss.
Consider doing it when you're having a family meal or during an ad break in your favourite TV programme. The atmosphere will be more relaxed and conducive to discussion. Don't do it if you're at the cinema, it breaks one of the Codes of Conduct.
4. Mental Health Isn't The Same Mental Illness
In the same way we talked about giving them the knowledge to understand mental illness. It's equally important that they understand that everyone, including them, has mental health. They might understand it more if you talk it as emotions or feelings; good days, bad days, happy, sad, etc.
There will be times when they aren't coping with school or college, and use similar analogies to get your message across. Illustrate that your mental illness means that your emotions can vary more quickly or are more intense than their own. I suppose what I'm saying is, put it in terms they can relate to.
5. Destigmatise The Stigma
There isn't an age when people begin to stigmatise against those with mental illness, in the same way there isn't a time when people become discriminatory against race, sex or age. When talking about mental illness, it may be worth grouping it in with other types of prejudice that is also unacceptable.
They will be quick to be told by teachers if they act inappropriately against someone because of the colour of their skin, so linking mental health stigma with this will hopefully help them to become non-judgemental and open about mental illness.
6. Promote The Positives
As we said earlier (honest, we did) mental health is something everyone has. Your chats with your children shouldn't be all about the doom and gloom of mental illness.
Talk also about the positive side of mental health and what helps to keep you feeling good. This can be exercise, relaxing with a family movie and if one of those is actually spending time with your family, then absolutely make a point of saying so.
7. Speaka da lingo
The language kids speak these days can a be puzzling mess. One minute they're LOLing, next they're LMFAOing or something. I don't know. You'll be telling me next they don't say "WASSUUPPPPP" anymore!. Mental illness can have it's own set of terminology but avoid using it if you can. The may not understand 'depressive episodes' (unless they watch Coronation Street) or 'psychological reactivity' so don't even try.
Talk to them in a way they will easily understand, such as "feeling low", "being depressed" or "becoming anxious". Also link celebrities they may be aware of who have had mental illness, including eating disorders. They may not be role models, but will help to create a level playing field and shared frame of reference when talking about it.
8. Length Is Important
Stop sniggering! We're talking about the length of time you spend talking to you child about it. When you're having the talk don't think you have to get it over and done with in one long conversation. In fact, I wouldn't recommend that at all.
The first thing to do is just to have the conversation in the first place. If it only lasts a few minutes to start with, then you've already done a great job. It shouldn't be the first or the last time you talk about it so just go with it, see where it takes you and keep the next topic of conversation until next time.
9. The Early Bird Gets The Word
The early you can bring it up in conversation, the better it will be. As we said at the beginning, only you will know the age and maturity level of your child, so judging what to say and when will play a vital part. Educating them about mental health will help them better understand not only your health, but their own as well. The sooner you can do this, the better it will be.
Even if it only sows the seed, they may seek out more information and better educate themselves on mental health. If they struggle themselves later on in life, this early intervention might get them the help and support they may need.
10. It Could Be Them
We're aware that all of the hints and tips thus far have been aimed at discussing your mental health with your children. It could be though that your children are the ones with the problem. Those 'children' don't even have to be under 18 so, if your kids have a problem and you want to kickstart the conversation, this one is for you.
However old they are, it can be awkward for them to discuss how they feel with anyone, let alone their parents. Kids are often as unwilling to show their vulnerabilities as we are. With that in mind, it may be an idea to depersonalise the conversation and talk about it in a hypothetical context. Rather than talking about 'their' feelings, talk about 'a friend' or 'a celebrity' and how 'they' would feel or what 'they' should do. It's not a code that will outwit the enigma machine I grant you, but if it starts the conversation, then it's all worthwhile.
Most importantly, they should know that you are someone they can talk to about their mental health, even if it's not there and then. Your support will be unconditional, as it should be.
So there we are. Our Top Ten tips for talking about mental health with kids. It's not a complete list by any means, so if you have any more ideas to share, please feel free to leave it in the comments below.