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Reaching Out to Kids about Mental Illness
One of the jobs I do is I present to teens about mental illness, mental illness stigma, and bipolar disorder. And at the end of each presentation, the kids give written feedback about the presentation.
The feedback I hear the most is, “I didn’t know anything about bipolar disorder before . . . thanks so much for educating us . . . now I know what to do when I see mental illness in the future.”
In short, the kids knew nothing about mental illness, mental illness stigma or bipolar disorder before the presentation but they really appreciated the information and a little information went a long way.
And what I wish people—educators and parents—understood, is that the kids want to know about mental illness and they need to know about mental illness.
In any one year, one-in-four people are directly affected by mental illness so we know that these kids are going to run into mental illness if they haven’t already. And so many of them have. Even kids with a parent with a mental illness rarely know much about bipolar disorder and mental illness because it’s something that families and schools don’t talk about and this has to change.
Talking to Kids about Mental Illness
I think the No. 1 message to give to anyone (adults included) about mental illness is that people with a mental illness are just like everyone else and that the images seen in the media are stereotyped and not realistic. People with a mental illness do not just “act crazy” and get put in asylums and straightjackets. People with mental illness can look and act like everyone else.
I do this in the presentation by showing the kids stigmatized images and talking about them. Then we show real images of people with mental illness (including the above picture of me as a child) and show that they are just like the kids in class.
And eradicating messages of stereotypes and stigma is a message that can be translated to any age group.
Age-Appropriate Information about Mental Illness
I talk to kids age 13 and older and I can tell you they understand and want to know more information than I ever would have thought. They listen to my personal story of bipolar disorder and that personal story includes the topics of self-harm and suicide and yet these kids soak it in and are so appreciative.
Kids understand more than we generally think. And we should remember that things like self-harm and suicide are practically an epidemic in teens and young adults, so it’s critical that we talk to our kids about those subjects so they know how to handle them when they come up—because they will come up in their lifetime.
If a child is younger than 13, information may need to be dampened slightly, but I still think it’s important to be very real because kids respect and respond to real and not candy-coated coloring. Talk to a child about the fact that some people’s brains don’t work like theirs do.
Talk to kids about how some people experience altered realities where they see and hear things that aren’t there.
Talk to a child about how some people are so troubled they feel the need to try to take their own lives.
Talk to them about what to do if they see this in someone else.
Talk to them about where and how to reach out for help.
Open the dialog. Make it stigma-free. You might be surprised at their questions and how much they really do want to know about this stuff.
Mental Illness in the Family
And please, please, if mental illness is in the family, talk to the kids about it.
Don’t just assume that the kids don’t notice—they do.
Don’t just assume that they don’t need to know—they do.
I have had feedback from children whose parents’ have actually taken their own lives who still didn’t know about mental illness. Please don’t let that be your child. Please explain to your child the realities of mental illness. Mental health is every bit as important as physical health.
Talking to Kids about Mental Illness
In short, open up a conversation. Tell kids it’s okay to talk about these subjects and that there is no taboo.
Because one day your child may need mental health help and your words might save his or her life.
Here is an information sheet on talking to kids about mental illness.