I believe it’s important to educate children about mental illness. “Cancer” and “diabetes” and “autism” are common words children know. We don’t shield them from what they mean or the effects they can have. At least I never have. So I’ve also never put my kids in a bubble that excludes mental illness. They both knew from a young age what it was and that I have it. I believe it helps them understand others. It helps them learn to see things from more than their own perspective. It helps them learn compassion. And it has helped them learn how to cope when my depression or anxiety gets bad.
Take the other night. We went out to eat. I was really hungry, which makes me cranky anyway, but also heightens my anxiety. They sat us near the door, which I hate, it’s a small space and was crowded and noisy as well—all things that get my heart rate up, my head spinning and make my breathing more difficult. The kids were asking about menu items, what to order, trying to show me things, all while I was trying to figure out what I wanted, but couldn’t as I was bombarded with everything else. I started shaking and getting very irritated. Did I mention I was hungry? I finally told my kids, as patiently as I could, that my anxiety was getting bad, and I needed them to be quiet, to stop talking to me for just a little while, so I could figure out what I was going to order. So they stopped talking. They were quiet. Because they got it. They understand what anxiety is. They understand that I need time to get it under control. I’ve done the same for my daughter when she has had panic attacks. I try not to get mad when she starts freaking out. Instead I give her time. I let her cry. I rub her back. She’s learned to do the same for me.
Teach your children. Help them understand. Maybe, if we’re lucky, they will be the ones to finally bring mental illness completely out of the shadows. Maybe they will be the ones to more openly seek treatment. Maybe they will be the ones to provide more treatment. But it starts with us teaching them.