Even in 2020, mental health is still a very stigmatized topic in the United States. People might not know exactly why they feel this way, but it’s common for folks to have negative attitudes and beliefs about mental illness. Some of this comes from our lack of standardized education on mental health topics and some of it comes from being socialized to think people are either “normal” or “crazy”. Even though many of us understand rationally that people don’t necessarily fall into those categories, the lessons we learn growing up in a culture that is not friendly to people with mental illness stick with us.
Thanks to technology and expanded access to healthcare, more and more folks are able to access mental healthcare and therapy is becoming more mainstream (if it has it’s own meme category, it’s mainstream, right?).
However, many of us don’t grow up talking about our mental health openly, so we don’t understand how to care for our mental health until well into adulthood.
According to the CDC, 7.1% of children age 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety and 3.2% of children in the same age group have diagnosed depression. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate by age, for the most part, so it’s especially crucial to equip our children with accurate information because you never know when they might need it.
Fortunately, there are more resources out there than ever to make therapy accessible and to learn about mental health from a young age. Children are especially malleable, and they pick up on so much more than what we explicitly tell them. This gives caretakers the perfect opportunity to educate the children in their care on mental health in a non-stigmatizing way from early childhood. One of the best ways to fight mental health stigma is to learn more about mental health. Teaching children accurate and age-appropriate information is not only helpful to their well-being, but it also helps to make the future a little more friendly to folks with mental illness.
If there’s a child in your life, you have the opportunity to change the narrative around mental health. You don’t necessarily need to do this in a pushy way, but wait for opportunities to come up naturally to use as teachable moments.
Educate yourself first.
Make sure you’re up to date on what you’re talking about. Reliable sources include psychological associations, the CDC, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, academic journals, and articles published by real news sources. Steer clear of info found in blogs or non-educational websites unless you can verify the credibility of the writer. It’s always easier to talk to someone when you understand what you’re talking about.
Find out what your child already knows.
Kids pick up on so much more than we give them credit for, so they may have already learned about some aspects of mental health. Ask your child what they know – it may surprise you.
Model healthy behavior.
Your kids learn from the behavior you teach them. Talk openly about your feelings. Name what you’re experiencing – this will help them name it in the future if they experience it. If you make talking about your mental health no big deal, they will grow up seeing it as no big deal, either.
Talk matter of factly about your own mental health in front of your child.
Children pick up on more than just the words we say – they understand more about tone, body language, and nonverbal communication than we give them credit for. When you talk to your child about mental health, do it in a matter of fact way. Don’t make mental illness out to be a catastrophe or tragedy, because that might make them feel afraid and shut down. You can always be honest with them and tell them you don’t know something if you aren’t sure. If you make time regularly for therapy, explain that to them. Say something like, “Mommy goes to therapy every week to help her stop feeling so sad and worried. Therapy helps me feel better.” Adjust as needed for age appropriateness, of course, but stick to the facts.
Children might not always be in the midst of crisis, but it’s important to check in with them regularly to see how they’re feeling. Don’t wait until something goes wrong to take an interest. Talk to them every day and ask them questions about their lives.
Be open to different expressions of emotion.
Some children might be more verbal than others and some might not be interested in talking for a long time. Use the tools at your disposal to help your child express what they’re feeling. Try letting them make some sort of art or play with their toys while you chat with them, or ask them to show you using emojis how they feel.
Validate your child’s feelings.
Everyone likes to feel validated and seen, especially children. We sometimes brush them off as being ‘just kids’, but their feelings are very real and it’s important to treat them as such. Even just telling them you’re here to listen or by helping them name how they feel can go a long way.
Explain in terms your child can understand.
Mental illness can be hard for people to understand because it’s not as visible as physical illness sometimes is. Try explaining it to them in terms of something they understand – like how getting a cold or a stomach bug means your body is unwell, mental illness means you feel unwell but in your brain. Use an experience your child has had as a jumping off point.
Practice coping strategies.
Lots of times, fear comes from not knowing what’s going to happen. If you and your child can make a plan for how to cope when they’re not feeling well mentally or when a caregiver is struggling with mental illness can make them feel less anxious. Make sure they know who they can call in an emergency or if they need support. Help them make a list of things they can do when they feel sad or anxious. Make sure they have an adult who isn’t you to turn to who you trust, so your child has another option to turn to.