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The Importance of Talking About Your Mental Health With Your Children

Mental health problems affect one in four people each year. According to The Mental Health Foundation, 68 percent of women and 57 percent of men with mental health problems are parents. So it’s no surprise many parents struggle with their mental health every day. And it’s no surprise we don’t talk about it.

A study in the European Journal of Public Health on families affected by parental mental illness, it was found the main barrier to seeking help was the fear of stigma. The findings show early intervention has a positive impact on the parent and their family. However, the parents in the study seldom asked for help and displayed self-stigmatizing behaviors. Some of the children displayed these behaviors too.

Understandably, many parents worry about how their problems will affect their children. The main concern is their children will experience mental health problems themselves. A review of parental mental health and child welfare found that children were twice as likely to develop a psychiatric disorder if one or both of their parents experience mental health problems. So these worries aren’t entirely irrational.

As a parent with mental health problems, I worry for my daughter. I was the child of a mother with mental health problems and the reasons for my issues can always be traced back to her. She refused to ask for help or admit there was a problem. This meant her illness got worse and so did my childhood.

As the above study in the European Journal of Public Health stated, parents and families benefit from early intervention. This means asking for help and actively working on your own recovery. It doesn’t mean hiding your mental health problems and being in denial. In my research for this article, I could not find a single study that said concealing your problems was helpful.

In fact, I found a lot of information suggesting that talking to your children about mental health is important, whether it be yours or your own. Mind.org.uk has a very helpful section on how to talk to your children about your mental health problems. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, children can easily feel ashamed of their parent’s mental health problems due to stigma. It is also common for children to worry about developing the same mental health problems. By having honest conversations with children, it clears up any misconceptions and reduces any fears.

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My mother’s mental illness was not the reason my childhood was difficult. It was her refusal to talk about it and seek help. Bottling up mental health problems whilst trying to manage the demands of parenthood is a toxic combination. Her example made me fearful of asking for help when I became unwell as a parent. I had no example of accountability, responsibility and recovery. I felt clueless when I developed my own problems as my only point of reference was incredibly unhealthy.

I worry about my daughter. She’s twice as likely to experience mental health problems because I have mental health problems. But one in four people experience mental illness, and surely not every single one of those people had parents with mental health problems. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate and it can happen to anyone. So even if I didn’t have mental health problems, it’s still likely that my daughter could experience them at some point in her life.

We can’t control what happens to our children. And maybe they will experience mental health problems. But isn’t it better to model recovery by actively working on our mental health, rather than concealing it? Isn’t it better to have honest conversations with our children, rather than teaching them self-stigmatization is the way to cope?

I’m not for one second advocating that parents use their children as therapists. That happened to me and it’s extremely inappropriate. But what I am advocating is not pretending we are superhuman. Children don’t need perfect parents. They need good parents. And a parent who seeks help, models recovery and has honest and age-appropriate conversations with their children about mental health is a good parent.

If you can do this, you will be the first person your child comes to if they ever struggle with their mental health. They will come to you because you have taught them to be open and honest. They will come to you because you have modeled recovery and taking responsibility for your mental health. They will come to you as you will be the person who understands.

Previously published in Mom, Interrupted: A Medium Publication for mothers with mental health problems.

Photo by J W on Unsplash