Every morning, I get up. I shower, brush my teeth, prepare lunch boxes and school uniforms. Then I take my medication. It’s an ingrained routine that I could do in my sleep – a streamlined process that ensures everyone’s out the door on time and my sanity is in check, my bipolar disorder held at bay.
However, the other day there was a slight interruption to my normal activities.
I’d forgotten to swallow those magic pills, so rushed back into the bedroom to take them. My six-year-old son was hot on my heels. After asking if he could have a third breakfast, he watched as I swallowed down the tablets with a slug of tea.
“Why do you take those, Mummy? he asked, his face inquisitive. I paused, before replying, “They’re just for my head.” I ushered him out and no more was said.
Later on that day, I thought about how I’d responded. In some respects, I hadn’t lied – after all the tablets were for my head. But, I hadn’t been completely honest either. I was unsure how much you explain to a six-year-old. Plus, the timing was hardly perfect for such a discussion.
But with mental health issues on the rise, it’s a discussion we do need to have. According to beyondblue, approximately 3 million Australians currently suffer with anxiety and depression alone. In addition to this, there are the countless people suffering with issues such as bipolar, OCD and schizophrenia, to name a few.
Worryingly for my son, the odds may not be good – not to mention further exacerbated by my history.
Many studies and much research has already shown that children of parents with mental health issues may be pre-disposed to suffering themselves.
I’m very conscious that awareness from a young age is important. We need the future generations to understand exactly what it means to suffer with mental health issues, how to recognise the signs and how to ask for help.
Simply put, we need to normalise it, not hide it.
But, as a mum, how much do I say to my son? Is transparency the best way, or is there a limit to what he needs to know?
“How much you tell a child very much depends on their age and how much your mood is impacting on them,” says clinical psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack.
“Children tend to see the world from their own point of view, and so often find a way to blame themselves for anything negative. If you’re struggling, they will wonder what they’ve done wrong, so explaining it is important.”
McCormack tells me that discussions with children about mental health should start young. With primary school-aged children (such as my son), she says that conversations can be opened with acknowledging and accepting feelings and moods in both yourself and your child.
She suggests it may be easier to talk in terms of behaviours, such as, “You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit grumpier or sadder lately.”
She then advises naming your illness and talking about the future or treatment that’s going to help you get better.
“Be honest with your struggles, but don’t go into too much detail if it’s not appropriate,” she says. “Keep it simple and straightforward. Use the correct terminology but don’t complicate it or use too many big words because this may scare your child.”
McCormack reassures me that helping my son to understand my illness will subsequently help reduce my worries and feelings of guilt or stress about the impact it may have on him. It’s something I’m going to take on board.
I’m not sure when I’ll sit down and talk to my son. Finding a good time may always prove a challenge, and being comfortable discussing it is a hurdle I need to overcome. But I know that it’s something I need to do.
Besides, it’s bad enough having the black dog snapping at my heels daily, I don’t need ongoing inquisitions from my son too.
This piece by Jo Hartley was first seen on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ October 26, 2017.