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Talking with Your Child about Mental Illness

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a brain disorder that can affect thinking, feeling, moods, and the ability to relate to others. Mental illness is a real illness that can affect people of any age, race, religion, or income. Mental illness includes a wide range of problems, such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, eating disorders, mood disorders, and many others. Many mental illnesses have known causes and many treatment options. Mental illnesses are more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, yet mental illness is not well understood by most people.

One in five families is affected by a severe mental illness, yet it is not usually discussed in the average home. Our schools educate children on the dangers of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes as early as elementary school. However, mental health issues are generally not taught until high school health classes.

How should you discuss mental illness with your child?

Mental illness can be scary. Friends and others may tell the child stories which may not be true. Teach children the facts.

  • Try to avoid being emotional during your discussion.
  • Watch your child’s reactions during your talk, and pay attention if your child seems upset or confused. Help your child feel safe and comfortable.
  • Talk with your child in ways that they will understand:
    • Pre-school age children need less information and details. They focus on things they can see. They may have questions about how people look and act, such as crying, yelling, or not talking at all.
    • School-age children may ask questions such as “Why is daddy talking to himself?” “Why is that person crying?” It is important to answer their questions honestly.
    • Teenagers often ask specific and difficult questions. They may have incorrect information about mental illness.
  • Correct mistaken beliefs about mental illness that your child might hear. For example, the belief that people with mental illness are "weak" and cannot control their lives.
  • Reassure children that mental illnesses, like physical illnesses, can be treated.
  • Help children understand that mental illness can run in families. Let your child know if a certain illness or disorder runs in your family.

What if your child has symptoms of mental illness?

If your child has symptoms of a mental health problem, he or she might be relieved to know that someone is there to help.

  • Discuss your concerns with your child.
  • Reassure your child of your love and support.
  • See your child's healthcare provider or a mental health professional.
  • Talk with your child about treatment options.
  • Help your child understand that getting help is always better than ignoring the problem.

What if someone in the family has symptoms of mental illness?

Help the child understand that a mentally ill person may do or say things in a different way than usual, may not be able to do the things they usually do, or may have to go into the hospital even when you cannot see anything wrong with them. Help the child understand that the person has an illness and that many other people have it. There are treatments for it, just like a heart problem.

  • Learn about mental illness and its meaning for the family. Help the child know what to expect and what to do and say. For example, if one or more family members suffer from depression, help your child learn to recognize the symptoms of depression. Teach your child that symptoms can be treated. If children see symptoms that concern them, tell them to talk over their concerns with a parent or responsible adult.
  • Gently encourage the child to talk about the family member and how he or she feels about the illness.
  • Tell the child that he or she cannot cause, control, or cure the person's mental illness.
  • Tell the child that it's okay to love the person but hate the illness.

For more facts about mental health, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-12-12
Last reviewed: 2012-03-12
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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