As a child I witnessed a lot of unpleasant things. Traumatic things. Things that would forever change the person I'd become as a woman, partner, and mother to two children. Mental illness runs in our family and, yet, I didn't know or understand the extent of the illnesses until I struggled with anxiety and depression on my own. So there are more than a few reasons why I talk to my kids about my mental health, starting with our family history. Through no fault of their own, they're predisposed to depression. As a result I carry an immense amount of guilt over something I have no control over, too, and the only way to combat that guilt is to be open and honest with my precious children.
I was depressed in early elementary school. My parents were going through a divorce and I had anxiety going to school after I'd accidentally wet myself during a group project. Every day felt like another new battle. I was bullied and harassed when I wasn't home, and then when I went home I didn't feel safe or secure. I remember watching my mom go through episodes of high highs and low lows, but no one ever told me why. I didn't understand what was "wrong" with her, anymore then I understood what was "wrong" with me, either.
By the time I was 7-years-old and having frequent panic attacks, my grandmother stepped in. Not only did she comfort me by chronicling her by sharing her own struggles (from suicide attempts to miscarriage and depression), but she introduced me to my first therapist and aided me in my quest for the right medication. She was the residual sounding board for which I'd toss my thoughts at, reminding me I wasn't broken and it wasn't my fault. I could heal.
Over the years, I've endured a few desperate fights with depression, barely surviving as the "winner" of each round. I'm no stranger to suicidal thoughts and tendencies, self harm, and eating disorders as a means of trying to control the disease. But through all my coping mechanisms, I've learned a lot about the mental illnesses that attempt to rule my life, and the kind of person they've morphed me into. Mostly, as a mother to two children.
My kids aren't numb to the days I can't manage a smile. They don't ignore the moments I can't concentrate on what they're telling me. And they're daily witnesses to the remnants of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that controls every portion of my schedule. Instead of pretending I'm not this way, I want to educate them on what our family has been through, what they've tried, and what it means to live with these disorders and how they've changed the way our brains operate differently than those who aren't affected. I tell them these things in the hopes that they can be proactive if diagnosed with similar illnesses. And, if they don't (and I hope they don't), they can practice empathy and compassion for those of us that do.
If I can arm my kids with as much information as possible, and explain my experiences dealing with mental illness in an age appropriate way, I will. It serves them no good to pretend things are fine when they so obviously aren't — when I'm not. Here are just some of the reasons I've decided to be open and honest with my kids about my mental health:
Because They Witness It Every Single Day
According to the National Academy of Sciences, one in five children live with a parent that suffers from depression. That's 15 million United States kids witnessing a parents' harrowing battle against an illness that kills if left untreated. There isn't a place on earth I can hide where my depression, anxiety, or OCD would be invisible. As a stay-at-home mom who also works from home, I'm the go-to person for both my partner and my kids. Pretending would only get me so far before everyone would peel back the layers to see the pain I'm carrying. I've chosen to be open and honest about my mental illnesses because seeing me in a less than stellar state might confuse of traumatize them more if I don't speak up.
Not only do I want to show my children I can carry these burdens (and they're not my fault), but I can be mom, too. The disorders don't define who I am, and if my children ever to go through some of the same, it won't define them, either. It's OK to acknowledge what's wrong, to talk about how it affects everyone in the house, and explain the ways I'm working to heal.
Because They Should Know What They're Up Against
My children are with me all the time, so they see what things like depression and anxiety can do to someone. And, because the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of adults are diagnosed with a mental disorder every year, it's important to talk about how that makes children of the diagnosed more at risk than those whose parents do not have a mental disorder.
I talk to my children about all of it — how it might run in the family (essentially putting them at a greater risk), but also how environmental factors are equally as important. For example, I was immersed in emotional and physical turmoil throughout my childhood, but my children are not. It doesn't negate genetic predisposition, but it does shed light on ways we can proactively engage in external preventions.
Because I Need To Teach Them Compassion
In discussing my own struggles, I want my kids to be in tune with their own mental health. To be kind to those around them who may fight behind closed doors. To be the kind of people who will stand up and speak out on their on behalf, or that of others' in need.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness cites that suicide is the third leading cause of death in those between the ages of 10-24. If my children know nothing about depression, or signs of someone who may be suicidal, how can they be advocates? How can they be positive changes in both their communities, and in their own lives? Knowledge and compassion are key to mental health recovery.
Because I Need To Be Held Accountable
In no way do I intend to rely on my children for support when I'm depressed. When I talk about my depression, or anxiety, or why I count the seconds between breaths during times of stress, it's not only so they can better understand me as a person, but so that I'm held accountable for my actions. Often times, mental illness changes the way reality is perceived. The chemicals in my brain don't work the same way they do in someone who is unaffected by mental illness.
While I do my part in terms of self care, being open about my struggle with my kids keeps me stay in check. I can't discuss all the ways to seek treatment if I'm not actually seeking treatment. In a recent UK study from the Department of Health and Time to Change, 55 percent of parents in the UK have not discussed mental health issues with their children, and 45 percent of those parents chose not to because they believe "mental health is not an issue." But here's the thing: it is an issue. According to The Guardian, "It is thought that half of diagnosable conditions manifest before the age of 14 and 75 percent by 21. A study in October found 62 percent of teens had searched for information about depression on the internet."
In other words, we have to talk about it. Openly, honestly, and always.
Because It's Part Of Who I Am
As much as I sometimes wish my mental illnesses wasn't part of who I am, they just are. I can't escape them. And maybe, someday, they won't be such a significant part of my life. But right now, they are, and my kids should know about them. I talk to my kids about my mental health because I want them — need them — to see every part of who I am. Mental illness doesn't change who I am, and it definitely doesn't change how much I love my children.
So They Can Be Proactive
My daughter already shows signs of depression and anxiety. She's experienced panic attacks. She experiences those high highs and low lows that her grandmother experienced when I was a kid. I try to remind myself puberty is to blame for some of that. After all, as her hormones change, her moods do, too. When I think back to my time as an almost 11-year-old kid, I'd already been through so much, including: sexual trauma, emotional and physical abuse, to identity issues that stemmed from the discovery of my biological father. I'd already began to self-harm and eating disorders took over my life. The worst part was, no one talked to me about what any of it meant, or how to deal with these traumas and my natural reactions to them.
Mental Health America suggests watching for the signs, like withdrawal, sleep issues, and changes in eating patterns, to know when to seek help. Had someone paid attention to me when I was 10, I'd have gotten the help I needed before it nearly killed me.
Because It's Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
I talk to my kids about my battle with depression, anxiety, OCD, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), because I didn't do this to myself. It's not my fault. My brain has taken my genetic predisposition, family history, and lifetime of environmental factors, and twisted my thoughts and feelings into something beyond my control.
I owe it to my children, and to myself, to dismantle the stigmas surrounding these disorders by way of open and honest discussion. Speaking up might not only save myself, but those suffering in silence. It helps others notice the signs amongst at-risk children. And the postpartum mothers might seek treatment if they know what to look out for. And also, let us not forget all the dads who are secretly suicidal, too, ashamed to talk about their depression for fear of being ostracized. With mental health, there's no such thing as talking about it too much.
So talk about it. And don't stop talking.
If you struggle with depression or feelings of self-harm, please seek professional help or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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