How I Talked to the Children in My Life About Mental Illness


Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

Over the last six months, I have been admitted to my local psychiatric hospital three times, did an intensive outpatient program for four months, gone to individual therapy weekly and been to my psychiatrist every two to four weeks. Currently, I have three medications I take daily as well as an as-needed medication for anxiety. I also am still going to individual therapy, a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills group, and my husband and I are in marriage counseling. That in itself is a lot for anyone, but then add these two key components to my life: I’m a teacher and a mother.

Explaining mental illness to anyone can be a challenge at times, but explaining it to children is a feat of its own. My 2-year-old would never really understand and I can only hope she never remembers this period of life. The same can’t be said for my 4-year-old: she’s bright, inquisitive and notices even the smallest changes to our routine. I couldn’t hide the signs of self-harm, couldn’t lie my way through being hospitalized three times, and sometimes even have to take my children with me to appointments. Then there was my 100-ish middle school students who have no filter and needed answers to my mystery absences. So, here’s what I did:

1. I told the truth.

I’ve had very serious conversations with my daughter. I have explained that mommy has an illness that requires her to take medicine every day so she stays “healthy.” I’ve told her I have to see a doctor every month to get more of this medicine. I’ve also told her that some doctors I see are for “meetings” where we talk about mommy’s illness and these doctors tell mommy ways to not get worse and stay healthy and strong. I told her when I was hospitalized that mommy was extra sick and needed to rest for some time so she could “stay safe.”

2. I kept it simple.

With both my daughter and my students, I left out any details that were complicated or might result in additional questions. I left my students with a simple statement when I returned from each of my stays at the hospital: “I was sick and required care and medical attention at the hospital so I could be stabilized enough to return to work and make beautiful music with you.” Each time they’d ask if I was going to die and I’d laugh the comment off, hoping they wouldn’t find out the truth that I’d considered taking my own life. These simple answers worked well; my students soon forgot the situation even happened and we went back to normal each time.

3. I planned out details carefully.

I had wounds and scars on my arms and legs for months (and still have some). Therefore, I planned my clothing out to avoid these marks being highly visual while at work. I also planned out times when my daughters would be distracted to change clothes or shower so they wouldn’t see. Children are also creatures of habit. I scheduled my appointments to be the same days of the week and times so they avoided my work day, but also could be easy for my daughters to understand.

Through everything, I think the best thing I did was be upfront and honest with both my daughter and my students. Honesty is the best policy, but also I feel very strongly that the only real way to fix the stigma that exists with mental health currently is to stop hiding in the shadows and disguising mental illness. If I had cancer, I’d be talking to my students and my daughters…why should my struggles with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) be any different? I hope my honesty will not only help the next generation dissolve the stigma, but also allow youth to know it’s OK to not be OK and get help.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash


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