Parents love to talk and brag about their children. And with the ease and popularity of social media, the bragging and sharing happens at an even greater level. My newsfeed is constantly flooded with sports posts, first day of school pictures, homecoming photos, and any other random “proud parent” moments.
But what do you post when your child is not the shining star or social butterfly? What do you do when your kid is struggling? Do you post about your child who is not able to get out of bed and go to school because they are too depressed to get up each morning? Do you post the soccer picture of your daughter who was benched because she was too thin and sick to play due to an eating disorder? Do you even say anything at all to your friends and family?
There is no right answer to these questions. Whether or not you talk about your children and their mental health is a personal choice. I have chosen to speak openly about my family’s experience with mental illness. I write a blog. I speak at events. I openly tell people that my son Bryce has severe mental illness and autism. It often comes up when people ask where he goes to school, or what activities he participates in, so I just put it out there. It used to be more difficult, and it was hard to find the right words to say. It was much easier to just say “I’m fine” or “Bryce is doing well.” It is more challenging to tell someone, “My son is in the hospital because he is having suicidal thoughts.” It may be upsetting to talk about, but it should not be shameful or embarrassing.
Why do I choose to talk about it? Because Mental Health Matters.
To reduce stigma. The stigma associated with mental illness is real and perpetuates negative stereotypes—that people are crazy, that they are weak, or that they are seeking attention. I worry that the face people picture when they hear “mental illness” is Jack Nicholson’s in “The Shining.” I want people to see my son’s innocent and sweet face instead. I want people to know that the face of mental illness can be anyone’s—their best friend, their neighbor, or their coworker; people just like them. By talking about mental illness, I can help shatter stereotypes and negative perceptions, hopefully convincing people to get the help that they or their children need.
To be there for my children. One in five people will experience some type of mental illness in their lifetime. So if you are a parent, your child may be one of those people. If a child is depressed or anxious, having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, or struggling with body image, they deserve to be heard and helped. In addition to being Bryce’s mom, I am also a Crisis Counselor for the Crisis Text Line. I hear from many teens who are afraid to talk to their parents, because they think their parents will be angry with them for being depressed, or for engaging in self-harming behaviors. As Crisis Counselors, we are there to listen and help, but I often find myself wishing I could reach out and contact their parents and tell them their child is hurting. I wish I could tell the texter that their parents would want to know what is going on. I cannot do either. What I can do is tell you how important it is to constantly remind your kids that you are listening, supportive, and there to help. Our children need to know that they will not be in trouble if they come to an adult to discuss their mental health. They need to know that it can get better, that they are strong for seeking help. By talking about mental health with my children, I am modeling the behavior I want to see in them. You can do the same by talking about mental health issues on a regular basis, including how to maintain good mental health and what to do if someone is experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition.
To help myself. While talking about mental health may initially seem scary, it has become cathartic and therapeutic for me as a parent. Raising children is stressful—and raising a child with mental illness multiplies that stress. There are unknowns, challenges, disruptions, and other things you cannot prepare for. I have learned that it is OK to talk about it—to let others know what I am feeling, to ask questions, to vent, to cry, to share. It is OK to tell others that I am hurting, that I need help, that my child is struggling, or that I just need someone to listen to me. You may find that you feel anger, sadness, confusion, or any wide range of emotions, and all of that is normal and understandable. It is OK to worry, to feel disappointment, and to be scared. I have felt all of these emotions. I have felt like I have failed my child, and I have felt scared, hopeless, and unsure of myself. Talking to others can help you sort out your feelings, or get you through a crisis. There are support groups available, both online and in person. You can talk as much or as little as you want, but talking is important.
To spread knowledge and raise awareness. Many people are still unaware of what mental illness is, what it looks like, how to act around those dealing with it, and what to do to support those that need help. I have found that if I want my friends and family to know how to best support me and my family, I need to teach them what to do, to show them what I need, and to ask them directly for help. When Bryce was unstable and we needed to hospitalize him, I failed at this. I needed help and did not ask for it. I have since learned that if I need people to understand what it is like to be in crisis, it is my job to explain and ask for support. You will find that in most cases, people want to do the right thing but are afraid of saying the wrong words or doing the wrong thing. By talking about mental illness, you can give people the skills they need to help and to treat you and your family like you want to be treated.
Tracy Greenberg has become a strong part of the Sheppard Pratt community. She is mother to Bryce, who attends The Frost School, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System. She gives her time as part of the Consumer Advisory Council, a group of family members, former patients, former students, and employees of the health system who are dedicated to improving our quality of care and enhancing recovery from mental illness and addiction. Follow along with Tracy through her blog.