Only 16% of American parents are comfortable discussing mental health issues with their children. The first step in increasing that percentage is learning more facts about mental health yourself.
|Anything you can talk about is less frightening that what you can't talk about.|
I was appalled to read in a recent USA Today that only 16% of the parents in the United States are comfortable talking to their children about mental illness and disorders. They are more comfortable —up to 3 or 4 times more comfortable — talking about illegal drug use or premarital sex than they are with talking about mental illness.
A friend who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder remarked bitterly, "It's just as well — most of them don't know anything about it, anyway."
I have bipolar disorder. Both my friend and I are evidence that mental illness happens frequently, can disrupt your life terribly — and can be successfully overcome. Because of this, I think it is important that adults learn more facts about mental illness, and that children begin learning that it's not something to be afraid of, to ignore, or to hide.
First, learn the real signals of mental illness. Running down the hall with an axe is not a common diagnostic indicator. (An extremely small proportion of the mentally ill are actually violent.)
Human beings are reluctant to recognize a problem unless they know that something can be done about it. Many generations have lived with "difficult" or "moody" spouses, parents or children because "that's just the way they are" Ù and nobody knows how to change it. Among the reasons for the rise in the reported statistics of mood disorder and other mental illnesses is that more people have heard of them, recognize the signs, and know that there is treatment available. Surveys report, however, that most people still believe that illnesses like depression cannot be treated Ù although most depressions, once diagnosed, are successfully treated.
There are several other reasons to be afraid to discuss or recognize mental illness. Hoving your mind and emotions go out of control is one of the most frightening things that can happen; having someone close to you go out of control can be even more frightening. Understanding more about an illness can lessen these fears, however. It is much less disturbing to me now to begin to get irritated at my sweetheart for no reason, or find myself suspecting my friends of impossible betrayals, or begin not caring at all about my most important projects. I know when to rest, or exercise, or take medication, to restore myself to myself. I know that when my sweetheart stops talking for long periods, or begins crying to himself, I just need to be patient; he will recover. I'm not disturbed by the stilted phrasing of my autistic friend or the repetitive phrases and gestures of my obsessive-compulsive friend; I can ignore those things like I would a physical scar or wart.
One of my nieces has a chronic immune system disorder. She knows what it is, she knows how to treat it, and she gets on with her life. Children can be very sturdy, if their parents don't cripple them with fears.
A caution: If you think you or someone you know may have a mental illness, please get yourself (or them) a thorough medical checkout first. Many things, from low blood sugar to allergies, can cause symptoms of mental illness.
One of the reasons to educate yourself about mental illness and treatment is to be an advocate if a family member does need help. Many people find that once they are even considered for a mental health diagnosis, their credibility is shot. Doctors, for instance, will begin to discount their reports of symptoms and reaction to medication. A person in pain may find it difficult to ask the questions necessary to assure responsible treatment is being given.
NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) recommends these questions for family members to ask a doctor:
1. What is your diagnosis? What is the nature of this illness from a medical point of view?
2. What is known about the cause of this particular illness?
3. How certain are you of this diagnosis? If you are not certain, what other possibilities do you consider most likely, and why?
4. Did the physical examination include a neurological exam? If so, how extensive was it, and what were the results?
5. Are there any additional tests or exams that you would recommend at this point?
6. Would you advise an independent opinion from another psychiatrist at this point?7. What program of treatment do you think would be most helpful? How will it be helpful?
8. Will this program involve services by other specialists (i.e., neurologist, psychologist, allied health professionals)? If so, who will be responsible for coordinating these services?
9. Who will be able to answer our questions at times when you are not available?
10. What kind of therapy do you plan to use, and what will be the contribution of the psychiatrist to the overall program of treatment?
11. What do you expect this program to accomplish? About how long will it take, and how frequently will you and the other specialists be seeing the patient?
12. What will be the best evidence that the patient is responding to the program, and how soon will it be before these signs appear?
13. What do you see as the family's role in this program of treatment? In particular, how much access will the family have to the individuals who are providing the treatment?
14. If your current evaluation is a preliminary one, how soon will it be before you will be able to provide a more definite evaluation of the patient's illness?
15. What medications do you propose to use? (Ask for name and dosage level.) What is the biological effect of this medication, and what do you expect it to accomplish? What are the risks associated with the medication? How soon will we be able to tell if the medication is effective, and how will we know?
16. Are there other medications that might be appropriate? If so, why do you prefer the one you have chosen?
17. Are you currently treating other patients with this illness? (Psychiatrists vary in their level of experience with severe or long-term mental illnesses, and it is helpful to know how involved the psychiatrist is with treatment of the kind of problem that your relative has.)
18. What are the best times and what are the most dependable ways for getting in touch with you?
19. How do you monitor medications and what symptoms indicate that they should be raised, lowered or changed?
There are many more sources about mental illness. Keep reading. The more you find out, the more easily you can discuss it with your children, and deal with it if it ever does occur in your family life.
Anything you can talk about is less frightening that what you can't talk about.
Last updated January 9, 2003