Thirteen years ago, I was nearly in high school, about to get my first period, and less predictably, at the cusp of a series major mental health crises. To make matters worse, my friendship with the best friend I had relied on since kindergarten, was reaching its slow but certain decline. I wasn’t interested in reading anymore and this distressed me because voracious reading had always been an important part of who I was. My parents had been telling age-appropriate stories about their mental health my entire life, so when I became depressed, it was much easier for me to figure it out than it might have been otherwise.
I do not remember how long it took me to tell my parents but I think it might have been a few months. I remember with crystal clear precision the reason it took me that long. It was the fear that I might be wrong. Depression, I knew well, was no one’s fault. But what if I wasn’t depressed? Would that not mean that I simply wasn’t trying hard enough, and was therefore lazy?
I did eventually tell my parents, who sent me to the family doctor, who sent me to a counsellor. I saw the counsellor a few times, who pronounced me “most likely not depressed”. I concluded that I must simply not understand what depression feels like and that the counsellor must be right.
I was embarrassed and I was distraught because my worst fear had come true. If I wasn’t depressed, then I was lazy and incapable and this seemed like the worst thing in the world to be. So, I told my parents I was fine and tried to forget the whole experience had ever happened.
I spent the next decade getting sicker, suffering, finally being believed in university, getting the wrong diagnosis, suffering, getting the proper diagnosis, suffering some more, learning to fight and finally in the past few years, reaching a place of stability. I have always been strong, but now I am sturdy.
The adults in my life listened to me, and they did their best. But if I had to go back in time as an adult and tell them what I wish they would have done differently, this is what I’d say:
This needs to be an ongoing conversation that grows as your kids do: As they get older, give them more detail about mental health and illness. What’s appropriate at a younger age may not be enough information at an older one, so keep things up to date and reconsider your message regularly.
Describe mental health challenges from the inside: So often, mental illness gets described from the outside looking in; but that’s just not how we experience our mental health. When you’re talking to your kids about mental health challenges, be sure to describe them like they would feel if it happened to them. That way, if your child ever experiences them, it will be easier for them to identify. If you don’t have lived experience of something you want to teach your kids about, consider an age appropriate book or YouTube video, or asking a friend or family member who does have that experience to help you describe it.
Know that kids don’t necessarily know if something they are experiencing means something is wrong: What’s normal for kids is what they’re used to and what happens in their lives, so it can be hard for them to figure out that what they are experiencing isn’t what everyone else is. That’s why, in addition to the tip above, teach kids what it feels like to have good mental health. That way they can have an easier time identifying if something goes wrong.
Listen to what your kids say, but also listen attentively to what they’re not saying: For some kids, especially those who are finding life embarrassing during puberty, it can be tough to say what’s really going on. Your child might not tell you they feel depressed, so listen to what they don’t say instead. If your child doesn’t often say they are happy, excited, or looking forward to things, this can be just as big a sign that something is wrong as if they were to tell you themself.
About the Author:
Chloé Simms is graduate of the Communication and Media Studies program at Carleton University. She is an avid reader and loves keeping her houseplants healthy. Chloé is passionate about mental health. Most recently, Chloé has joined the Myles Ahead team as a research consultant.
For Children: Great books that help kids know and love themselves.
For Youth: A video that discusses being there for ourselves.
For Caregivers: 5 ways to teach your child to trust their instincts.
For Educators: 7 ways to foster self-esteem and resilience in all learners.