Dear Dr. Debbie,
I just wanted to put in a pitch for parents to address mental health with their children. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, especially when it hits close to home.
The pandemic has certainly added to our social-emotional burdens, with a reported “25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.”
Even without a pandemic, mental illness is something that affects us all, whether personally, in our families, or in our communities. If your child notices a “difference” in another person, this is a great opportunity to talk about conditions that affect thinking, emotions, and behavior. This might be someone they know from school or the neighborhood, or a member of the family. Some day it might be them.
It is normal to have anxious moments – misplacing a homework assignment, for example. Most children and adults quickly recover and go on about their day. A person with an anxiety disorder does not. The Mayo Clinic describes the diagnosis of anxiety as having repeated episodes of worry and fear about everyday situations. Anxiety can cause obsessive-compulsive disorder, debilitating phobias, and or panic attacks,
Anxiety is the most common of all mental health diagnoses. There are varying causes including genetics and life events. According to a report from the National Institute for Health the rate of anxiety among U.S. teenagers has been steadily rising. “Nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder.” The data used was pre-pandemic – before the shock and adjustments of social restrictions and the risk of catching a deadly disease.
It is perfectly normal to feel down at times, especially in response to challenging and or tragic events. A person with depression has a persistent feeling of sadness, often expressed as loss of interest in activities, especially social activities. For a clinical diagnosis of depression, feelings of sadness and or hopelessness have persisted for at least two weeks and for “persistent depressive disorder” the depressed mood has lasted for at least two years. Similar to anxiety, causes of depression can include genetics and life circumstances.
For a child, a good example of how someone with depression might act is Winnie the Pooh’s friend, Eeyore. “Why even bother,” he often says. His friends love him despite his negative outlook and encourage him to join in their activities. They also just quietly sit with him, too.
Related to depression, Bipolar Disorder is manifested in alternating periods of depression with periods of “mania” or high, often creative, energy. Mania can also be expressed as irritability.
A Range of Mental Illness
Either anxiety or depression can make life difficult, especially if not adequately treated. Other disorders, such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome, can include emotional outbursts and or social uneasiness.
These and other disorders warrant explanations so that a child will know what to expect from a person who is so affected. For example, a person with dementia has memory problems which may make conversation difficult. At some point they may no longer recognize your child. If someone close to your child has to go away for mental health treatment, such as for substance addiction, you should explain the situation in a way that is honest and understandable.
Open a Book
Here are some children’s books to get you talking about managing feelings including anxiety:
My Many Colored Days (about feelings) by Dr. Seuss, ages 3-5
Don’t Feed the Worry Bug by Andi Green, ages 3-8
In My Hearth: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek, ages 3-6
When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang, ages 4-8
What’s Happening to Grandpa? (about dementia) By Maria Shriver, ages 4-8
B is For Breathe by Melissa Munro Boyd, ages 4-10
Keeping it Cool: Skills for Coping with Change by Melissa Munro Boyd, ages 4-10
How Big are Your Worries Little Bear? By Jayneen Sanders, ages 6-10
What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner, ages 6-12
If there is a specific disorder that you need to explain to a child, you may need to read up on it first. Here are a couple of books for adults:
Understanding Depression by Raymond De Paulo
Don’t Feed The Monkey Mind by Jennifer Shannon (about anxiety orders)
The Weight of Air: A Story of the Lies about Addiction and the Truth about Recovery by David Poses
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
Ask a librarian, or look in the catalog, for more books from your local library.
Daily Good Mental Health
Similar to physical health, our mental health is something that needs to be tended daily. And just as we should be doing for our physical health, our mental health is supported by:
Healthy eating, regular physical activity (at least 60 minutes each day), adequate sleep, and relaxation techniques.
Additionally, mental health is supported by creative outlets, a sense of purpose or direction, and social connections. Be sure your family is finding opportunities to spend time with friends – outside, of course, while Covid-19 still lurks among us.
The Japanese have a way to cleanse the mind of stress by connecting to nature. “Forest Bathing” is catching on around here.
Add this healthy habit to your weekly routine in Mental Health Awareness Month!
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.