Mental illness might sound like a topic best suited for grown-ups – a matter of concern only for adults or health care professionals. But it’s a subject worth discussing with your kids, too.
There are several reasons why your children will benefit from a discussion about this sensitive issue. For instance, the term “mental illness” carries many negative connotations and is often rife with misunderstanding. Children, in particular, may only grasp this topic in terms of outdated depictions of “crazy” characters they’ve seen on sitcoms or in cartoons. As a parent, you can help them sift fact from fiction and understand that mental illness impacts real people. It is no laughing matter.
A common misconception among many kids (and some adults, for that matter) is that mental illness primarily impacts older people. But that is hardly the case. It affects children and young adults in a number of very real and significant ways.
After all, the term “mental illness” encompasses a broad range of conditions, including not only things like borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD – but also ADHD and numerous eating disorders. Whether in elementary, junior high or high school, it’s likely that your children have encountered at least some of these conditions among their own peers.
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in five children aged 13-18 either have, or will have, a serious mental illness. In addition, 11 percent of youth have a mood disorder, 10 percent have a behavior or conduct disorder, and 8 percent have an anxiety disorder.
This is the world your kids live in! Information and awareness are critical for them – and for you – as you encounter real-life families struggling with mental health issues. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that parents employ the following techniques when broaching the subject of mental illness with their children:
- Communicate in a straightforward manner.
- Communicate at a level that is appropriate to a child's age and development level.
- Have the discussion at a time and place the child feels safe and comfortable.
- Observe their child's reaction during the discussion.
- Slow down or back up if the child becomes confused or looks upset.
In addition to these suggestions, we would add … pray! Help your kids develop empathy for individuals and families grappling with mental illness, and pray along with your child for those families in the same way you’d pray for someone dealing with a physical ailment.
Your kids are looking to you to set the tone for how mental illness is viewed and addressed. With biblical guidance and discernment, you can help them grasp the reality of this issue, especially as it impacts their peers and others around them.