Although mental health is high on the agenda, with many people including celebrities talking about their mental illness and an increasing awareness of mental illness in teens; I think as a society it can still be hard to talk to children about mental illness. I think there is still a worry that if we use the words depression and mental illness, that children will not understand or become fearful. Even with all the discussion and acknowledgment about mental illness, with new celebrities and sports stars coming out each day talking about their struggles, I still think there is a stigma. Sadly I think there is still pain and shame felt amongst families when they talk about the mental illness in their family. A friend of mine Will Taylor is an excellent child counselor, he has recently written about his own struggle with depression and how some people have told him they wouldn’t want to go a counselor who has had depression. To me, this suggests that some people still view mental illness as something that is shameful.
I firmly believe we need to talk to children from a young age about mental illness, we need to use the correct language and help them to understand what is happening, by doing this we break down the stigma. Obviously, we need to do this in an age appropriate way, in a way which helps the child to not be scared but to give them enough information to help them to understand what is going on. A common held misbelieve is that children will not notice, they will not be aware when a parent or loved one becomes depressed. However, we know that children pick up on the smallest of changes, they know when something is different. I grew up with a mum who has Bi-polar, I was a child in the 70’s when depression was never spoken about. I have memories of being 5 and recognising the warning signs that she was becoming ill, they were small, but I noticed. She would give us extra money to buy sweets, she would start baking lots, this was always the begining of a manic episode. These sound like tiny changes but I noticed. My Dad talked about my mum being ill, but it wasn’t until I was 14 in a school assembly that Mind was leading, and I heard the term mental illness and realised that was what my Mum had. Until then I had presumed she had cancer and that she would die. If we do not use the correct words with children, if we do not explain what is happening, then children will fill in the missing gaps, and often get it wrong. Our role as adults is to help children to understand that depression, anxiety, bi-polar, schizophrenia etc are all mental illness, they are not something to be afraid of, or to be ashamed of, we can talk about it.
I do appreciate that it can be really hard to find the words to help a child understand, for me that is where books and films can be so helpful. I have written two books and an animation for children of different ages to help them understand Bi-polar. But there are a growing number of good resources about depression. Below I have listed and linked some of the ones I really like. On Wednesday this week, it is mental health day, there will be lots of discussions all week about mental illness, and that is great, but I would like to encourage people to talk to children as well.
Mummy’s Got Bippolar– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton
Can I tell you about Bipolar Disorder– Sonia Mainstone-Cotton
Can I tell you about anxiety- Lucy Willets and Polly Waite
I had a black dog – Matthew Johnstone
The wise mouse- Virgina Ironside
The illustrated Mum- Jaqueline Wilson