Starting The Process
Mental health can be very difficult to talk about. In some families, it may not be. It may be a very open topic due to several members having diagnoses, working in the mental health community, or both. My house has a combination- I’ve spent my entire career in mental health as a mental health worker, an addiction counselor, and a chemical dependency technician, just to name a few things over the past decade. My younger son was diagnosed with ADHD (combined) and High Functioning Autism in November 2011. This can be a good thing because my kids and husband are more aware of how to deal with those with mental illness and/or developmental disabilities. I believe it also helps make my kids more empathetic.
I realize that many families do not have this openness and the first step can be the hardest- talking about mental health. There are still many stigmas related to mental health and its treatment, and it takes time and a lot of education to get rid of them. This can start at home, either with a diagnosis of a child, parent, other family member or close friend. This can also be inspired by something seen or read- either can be good.
Tips To Make The Talk Smoother
- Try to talk to your child during a calm time. It’s not easy to talk to a child about anything when there is a lot going on or during a crisis situation when they are already anxious or very upset. If there has already been a situation, wait until your child has had time to process what has happened before you bring up the diagnosis you/they have been given.
- Keep the talk age-appropriate. The topic of mental health is already a rough one, and it may scare young children if you tell them more than they can handle. Each child and what they can handle is different, so know what they can and cannot handle before you have this talk. If they reach a point that they need to stop, please respect their wishes and try to come back to the topic another day. They need time and space to process what is going on.
- Ask what they are thinking. Kids need to be able to say how and what they feel in this situation, even if it may not be what you want to hear. They may not be happy with having a certain diagnosis, or for example, having a mother with bipolar disorder. They need to be able to express those feelings, not hold them in. However, don’t let them be hurtful or disrespectful. That isn’t helpful to the situation.
- Clarify what they don’t understand. They may not understand everything at first, depending on their age and comprehension. A teenager may be worried about being able to drive or live on their own in a few years or having to take care of you when you are older. A younger child may worry about you having to take medications- what if you run out? What if you can’t afford them? Are they going to be okay? Knowing they will be taken care of will help with some of the anxiety.
- Assure them that none of this is their fault. Kids tend to blame themselves for things that happen in their lives- divorce, death, etc. Some kids may blame a parent’s severe depression, a manic episode or alcoholism on themselves. They need to know that it isn’t their fault. Many, if not all, mental health issues have a genetic component to them. (Younger kids won’t get this, but teens will.) Kids need that reassurance. This may be one of the most important steps in the process.
Sticking Together Through The Hard Times
Families can discuss how to handle mental health crisis situations and come up with a concrete plan if needed. This may include making a list of where to go for immediate help, such as a local ER, mental health facility, or other location. This plan also can include:
- Plan for (other) children- where will they go? Other family, friends, neighbors, etc.
- Medication list (including allergies)
- Names and contact information for pediatrician/primary care physician/mental health providers
- List of previous admissions to in/outpatient facilities
While discussing plans, families can also discuss a plan for how to try to help the family member that may be having difficulties, when that help may not be effective and when to enact the plan so that everyone stays safe. Everyone’s safety is always important. If needed, calling 911 can be included on all plans. Also, a plan for at-home and outside aftercare can be helpful. It can be difficult for the whole family to adjust back to a regular routine after one member has a crisis. Some kids become anxious, have problems sleeping, may regress in behaviors, and so on. This plan can include family nights at home, self-care for the person involved, school work done at home for a couple of days to ease back into the school routine, etc. Attending aftercare appointments is very important.
Communication is key in any family. If nobody talks, then nothing gets accomplished. In a family that has members with mental health issues, this can lead to dangerous situations and tragic results. It may be difficult at first to sit down and have these discussions, but they need to be had. It can even start out as just the adults, depending on the situation, but if everyone can be involved, that is even better. Changes may need to made in the household to keep everyone safe- getting rid of weapons (knives, guns, etc.), putting medications in a secure place, knowing triggers, for example. Making your home safe can take a matter of minutes but can also save lives.
Talking more about mental health at home can expand your knowledge. It can help make your home safer if need be and help others.