“I heard the words once, ‘is it my fault mummy is crying?’ and it broke me,” Laura Dernie, 34, from Wales, tells HuffPost UK. “That was a huge catalyst that started us talking about depression.”
Dernie was diagnosed with postnatal depression after the birth of her first child - Jack, now eight, - and then perinatal and postnatal depression when she had her second - Poppy, who is now five. Ensuring her children knew they weren’t to blame for her feeling upset was really important to Dernie, so during her second pregnancy she and her husband sat Jack down and explained to him that “mummy had a brain that didn’t work the same as other people’s”.
Dernie is one of many people navigating mental health issues and raising children: Approximately 68% of women and 57% of men with mental health problems are parents, according to the Mental Health Foundation.
Therapist Marianna Vogt, who is a member of the Counselling Directory, says a parent’s mental health is not an issue that can be swept under the carpet as “children will pick up on their parents’ depression whether it’s talked about or not”.
“So it’s important for a parent to tell a child that they are not well at the moment, but that they are getting help,” she advises. “It’s tricky, because each case of depression and each relationship between parent and child will be different, but the most important things are to get help and to be honest.”
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Mental health charity Sane adds that having an open and honest two-way conversation about depression will reassure your child that they are not responsible for the way their parent is feeling.
But knowing how to broach the topic of your own mental health with your kids can be daunting. Katie Mitchell*, 37, from Birmingham, was diagnosed with depression when she was 19, and bipolar three years ago. She has five-year-old twins who don’t yet know about her diagnoses. “I still don’t know how I intend to tell them, but I know that I have to,” she says. “I’m terrified of getting it wrong.”
She may not have addressed depression head on yet, but Mitchell has already taken the first step towards this conversation, by ensuring her kids know about good mental heath. According to a Sane spokesperson it is a good idea parents do this before introducing the idea of mental illness. “Let them know that having friends, eating well and regular exercise, for example, can all help contribute to good mental health,” they advise. “Also, it can be easier to bring the conversation up using something from everyday life, such as a character in a film or a celebrity with a positive story to tell.”
Mitchell and her husband are helping their kids develop good sleeping and eating habits, teaching them a useful vocabulary related to moods and helping them find healthy outlets for emotions - “When my twins are feeling low, one loves to paint and the other prefers to read alone,” she says. They are very aware of the need to help their children understand that whatever they’re feeling is valid and deserves to be aired. “We also try to help them find things that just give them a shot in the arm if they’re feeling sad,” she says. “A fizzy bath bomb, a walk in the park or an extra hour in bed so they can try to dig themselves out of the hole before it gets too deep.”
Once you have instilled practices related to good mental health in your kids, Sane advises having age-appropriate discussions with children, as honesty can help reduce any fear or confusion they may be feeling. “Explain how your mental health problems affect the way you feel and behave,” they advise. “While it can feel daunting trying to judge how much or how little to explain to young children, as their parent you are in the best position to judge how much information they should know.”
Vogt says describing symptoms, (‘at the moment, it’s hard for me to find the energy to do the things I have to do’), explaining how the symptoms are being treated, (‘I am getting help with this by talking to a therapist’), and offering reassurance, (‘I am figuring out the best things for me to do to get better’), is a good model to start with.
As a child grows up, their knowledge and understanding increases, and their questions may evolve. “You should answer any questions they have as honestly as possible,” Sane advises. “If your child does not feel comfortable talking about how they feel with you then identify a trusted family member, friend or teacher that they can talk to. Remind them that there is no such thing as a stupid question when you are having this conversation.”
Laura Burnett, 32, from Stockport, first had a proper conversation about her bipolar disorder - which was called manic depression when she was diagnosed when she was 16 - with her son three years ago when he was four. “When he was very little I used to tell him that mummy had a funny head which made her feel a little poorly sometimes; I would also say ‘mummy is having a rainy day or a sunny day’,” she explains. “He asked questions about my medication and I said it helps, like when he takes Calpol for a poorly head. We also read a book together about a mummy who had depression of the same type as me, which was really useful.”
Now her son is seven, Burnett says he can often pick up on her moods without realising. “Because he’s been aware of it all since an early age, it’s not scary or strange for him,” she says. “It’s just who mummy is. He asks how I am feeling and I try to honestly answer any questions he asks when they crop up, whilst appreciating and remembering his age.”
For Dernie having an age-appropriate discussion with Jack involved comparing her illness to a physical ailment. “I explained it in the same way as when I had knee surgery previously that sometimes part of us doesn’t work properly and for me it was just my brain,” she says. “I explained everyone’s brains were different and it meant that sometimes I need some space.”
When Poppy got older, there was no “big talk” as now depression is something they speak about naturally in their household in the same way they would a physical illness, “We just talk about it as if it was another piece of the body,” she said. This can be a good way to help children understand mental illness, according to Sane, as their spokesperson advises: “It may help children understand that their parent is unwell and that they can be treated to help them get better.”
Dernie, Mitchell and Burnett may have felt the need to talk to their children about mental health at a younger age than they would have had to if they didn’t have depression, but actually doing so has had an additional benefit for their families As well as allaying their children’s fears, it has also helped them develop an understanding of how to look after their own mental health.
“Sadly, two years ago my son lost one of his friends in a road accident,” Dernie says. “We have always been a family that talks about how they feel so when he lost his friend, he openly spoke about how he was feeling and was able to express it. Also, he was once told that big boys don’t cry and he said, ‘yes they do’ and burst into tears in front of them.”
Mitchell’s focus has also been on laying down the foundations for good mental health for the twins. “Things that have taken me a lifetime to understand - the things that I know really kick me in the guts when I’m low - I’m drilling into them from an early age,” she says.
3 pieces of advice to parents with depression, from parents who have been there:
Talk to your child as much as possible.
“Talk to them,” says Dernie. “Show them that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Self stigma is one of the worst things. Remember that children don’t think like adults and will learn from you.”
It’s ok to put yourself first.
Mitchell advises: “If you don’t take care of yourself, you are no good to your family, being selfish sometimes contributes to the greater good.”
Don’t try to hide it.
“I found being honest really helped,” says Burnett. “You don’t have to go in to lots of detail but don’t try and hide it from your child. They will pick up on more than you know, and also when they do find out it might be a scary big change for them.
For further information and support:
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sane - a mental health charity improving quality of life for anyone affected by mental illness - including family friends and carers. Call 0300 304 7000.
* Name changed to protect her identity until she has told her children about her diagnosis.