Mental health awareness and outreach is a cause that’s really important to me. I have a sibling with intellectual disability. I’ve struggled with depression and panic attacks. I’ve lost friends to suicide, and seen them struggle with eating disorders, anxiety, and learning disabilities. Now that I have kids, I’ve been thinking of mental health in a new context — how to teach my children about mental health. Here’s a list of lessons about mental health that I want my children to learn:
1. Not Everyone’s Brain Works The Way Yours Does
Baby and Monster and Bubba are all such intelligent children. They constantly surprise me with the way their minds work, with their imagination and resourcefulness. I put a lot of trust in the fact that their intelligence is going to carry them safely through situations that their mother and I won’t be able to prepare them for.
But I want my children to know that not everyone is like that.
I want them to understand that some people will struggle with tasks that they accomplish with ease, and that it isn’t necessarily because of willful ignorance or lack of trying.
At age 36, my sister still needs someone to set the temperature of her bathwater — her brain doesn’t have very good perception of hot and cold, so she literally can’t tell if the water is hot enough to scald her. At 14, my son reads better than 90% of the residents that lived in the intellectual disability group homes I used to supervise.
I want my children to have compassion for those who struggle at things they do well, and I want their first impulse to be offering assistance, not ridiculing others for their lack of ability.
2. It’s Okay To Reach Out For Help
Monster is such a proud, independent child…and stubborn too. She rarely wants help with anything, and I expect as she grows older, that trend is going to continue throughout her life. I want her to know, though, that she doesn’t always have to be strong and independent. That sometimes it’s okay to reach out to others for help when you’re feeling sad or scared or otherwise struggling with your mental health.
That’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I first started struggling with depression as a teenager. I had suicidal thoughts at 16, to the extent of making plans. Thankfully, I never followed through, but I was 30 before I swallowed my ego and my pride and finally sought professional counseling. I felt like I was being weak if I couldn’t handle my feelings on my own. Those were a tough 14 years. They didn’t need to be so hard.
It took a major crisis to push me to seek help. If I’d sought help when I first started struggling, it’s possible that major crisis would never have come to such a volatile head.
3. Your Worth Isn’t Determined By Your Ability
A couple weeks ago while Angela was at work, Baby asked me to show her how to snap her fingers, and when she couldn’t do it, she became frustrated and said “I can’t do anything right!” I stopped her and encouraged her to say a more positive statement about herself and to take a break before trying again. That moment has been rolling around in my brain, because the statements we say about ourselves often become part of our inner monologue.
I don’t want Baby to link her self-worth to her abilities. I want her to be proud of her abilities, but I want her to know that her worth doesn’t rely on them.
Since my epilepsy diagnosis, it’d been difficult for me to work regularly. In a world where the first thing strangers usually ask you is “What do you do?,” that question becomes an uncomfortable one when the things you do aren’t necessarily a traditional career. It’s easy to feel embarrassed when you have to explain that you don’t currently work and haven’t in some time.
I want my kids to know that their worth is an irrefutable fact.
4. Eventually, Everyone’s Got Something
When I was first diagnosed with epilepsy and my seizures were totally out of control, I remember expressing to my mother that I kept thinking “Why me?”
In retrospect, it was kind of a silly question to ask a woman who has endured epilepsy, the birth of a special needs child, major colon surgery, and a number of other health issues, but she told me something I’ll never forget.
Eventually, everyone’s got something.
It’s a simple statement, but it’s really true. We all go through struggles in life. Sometimes they’re physical or mental health crises. Sometimes they’re family troubles or tragedies. Sometimes they’re money problems.
It’s easy to look at people and feel like they’ve got everything together and their whole life is going great, but you’re only seeing the surface. A lot of times, if you talk to people, they’ll open up about the things they’re going through and you’ll find out that you aren’t totally alone in your struggles.
I want my kids to know they aren’t alone, no matter what they’re going through. Someone, somewhere is going through the exact same thing and feeling the exact same feelings they are.
5. It’s Not Always In Your Head
In 2015, I started having extreme panic attacks. I basically had a mental breakdown from a combination of work and family stress.
I was supervising a county worth of group homes dealing with adults with intellectual disability, most of whom had violent behavior and unstable mental illness. I was on call 24 hours a day for 21 days at a time, and usually fielded 40-60 phone calls and texts a day from my staff and the residents. I was dealing with the recent death of a resident. At the same time, I was dealing with a prolonged illness and eventual death of a family member. I was living in a place where I was largely cut off from my family and my social circle.
All of that culminated in a span of about three days where I started having back to back panic attacks, some lasting almost an hour at a time. I was terrified to leave my home. I couldn’t work. I started having auditory and visual hallucinations.
I took six weeks off work to seek counseling and psychiatric care. I was diagnosed with PTSD, major depression, and panic disorder. Counseling and psychiatric medication helped, for a bit, and I learned a lot of good techniques to help process panic attacks and depressive feelings and make them more tolerable. But the medication was ineffective, and the severity and frequency of my symptoms didn’t diminish any.
When my leave was up, I briefly tried to return to work, but quickly found I couldn’t handle it. I quit my job and moved back home. At my mother’s insistence, I got checked out for epilepsy — when her seizures developed in her 30s, it initially presented as feelings of panic and anxiety. An EEG confirmed my diagnosis, and I started treatment for epilepsy. My panic symptoms immediately improved.
Fainting or fatigue
Rhythmic muscle contractions or spasms
Aura or pins and needles sensations
Slurred or impaired speech
Does that mean all the fear and anxiety and panic attacks were solely a cause of the epilepsy? Well, no. Here’s the tricky thing: I had both. Even with my epilepsy well-controlled by medication, I still have anxiety symptoms. The sound of a ringing phone makes me tense up and my heart race. I still do anxious visual sweeps for potential weaponry when I enter rooms — a habit I picked up when dealing with violent clients. My phone has stayed on silent mode for two years and I just check my voice mails regularly.
Maybe all the stress triggered the epilepsy. Maybe the undiagnosed epilepsy worsened the stress and pushed it beyond a point where I could cope with it. I’ll never know. Either way, the epilepsy was a major component in the mental health problems I was dealing with, and it wasn’t until I explored other medical options that I discovered it and was able to have it treated.
I want my children to know that if they start going through mental health struggles and they aren’t finding answers, they may need to keep looking.
6. You Can Train Your Brain
I learned a lot of great techniques when I went through therapy and counseling. I learned grounding techniques to calm myself when I was scared. I learned the value of nonproductive downtime and mental rest. I learned how to identify self-destructive behaviors and habits in myself and replace them with better ones. I learned how to identify toxic people in my life and make changes to diminish their impact on my wellbeing. I learned a lot about the mechanisms behind panic attacks from books like When Panic Attacks and other texts my therapist recommended.
It’s easy to feel what you’re feeling and believe you can’t do anything about it. We’re told that a lot, right? “You can’t help what you feel.” While that’s true in the context that we shouldn’t feel guilty or angry at ourselves for certain feelings, it’s also not true that we can’t do anything at all about our feelings.
I want my children to know that they can learn to master their minds the same way they can learn how to skate or how to whistle or how to cook. I want them to know they can develop mental skills the same way they develop physical skills — through practice and reflection.
7. You Are Loved No Matter What
Finally, I want my children to know that no matter what they’re going through, I love them. I want them to know they can be angry and I will love them, that they can be sad and I will love them, that they can be terrified and I will still love them.
Love got me through my own struggles with mental health. The love of friends who had been through similar things. The love of my parents, especially my mother, who sat with me on a bathroom floor while I had a severe panic attack, and my dad who stayed up with me until 3 a.m. one night so I could talk out my feelings. The love of Angela who never balked or judged me for the things I was experiencing, even when I had to cancel dates at the last minute because I was feeling sick from my new epilepsy medications.
If my kids ever find themselves experiencing the things I did, or other struggles, I want them to know I’m going to love them like that.
Do you talk to your kids about mental health?
Have your children struggled with any sort of mental health issues? Are you a parent with mental health issues? Tell us about your experience in the comments.