Growing up I was never exposed to what mental health was. It was never a topic discussed in the car, on the way to school, nor was it something we spoke about as a family unit over dinner. This wasn't because of the "mental health taboo" that existed in the community I came from, but because my parents themselves hadn't grasped the concept of mental health. Sounds silly doesn't it? The prospect of two adults not understanding mental health? But it is not silly, it is a very real issue. In fact many adults can go throughout their adulthood not fully understanding mental health, even when exposed to it.
Alongside mental illness there comes the idea of support. How can you be supportive if you don't fully understand the concept in the first place? It becomes difficult to put yourself in the shoes of the sufferer. This is the case for some parents and children, as the parents have little or no experience with mental illness. "You want to help your child but you cannot begin to understand what is happening. There isn't an idiot's guide to mental health. It's more complex than that, sometimes beyond a doctor's explanation of it. " I feel that as young people (suffering from mental illness or not) we have a duty to educate our parents if they do not understand. Our parents taught us our first steps, and how to do basic things that are fundamental to our functioning as human beings, so it is time they are taught about the most important thing in 'being human'- our mental health.
How can a parent help their child who is dealing with mental health problems? I asked various young people for the answer to this question. Many responded with their own experiences, or what they would want their parent(s) or carers to do, or say.
"It is not your fault."
It is not your fault if I suffer from mental health problems, no one can dictate how mental health comes about, but we can change how we deal with it as a family. Blaming yourself only makes your child feel guilty, and can even be triggering. I know it is difficult to come to terms with diagnosis, and some would argue it is just as hard on parents, as it is to their child when diagnosed, but taking the blame on to yourself is just detrimental.
"Do you understand what is happening to me right now?"
Post-Diagnosis can seem like a dark world for most. You go from having no idea what is wrong with you, to suddenly having a label put on this condition that may have bothered you anything from months to years. Having to constantly explain what is wrong with me can be draining, I want you to understand, but I acknowledge that it is not easy to process. Take time to find out about what I have been diagnosed with. Speak to my GP or other professionals who deal with mental health, and ask for more information and support if you need it. Like with any illness you would look up the impact and side effects it can have,so please do that with my mental health condition.
"Even after the loss of their first son to suicide they failed to understand completely why his death made me want to follow in the same route, but was it selfish of me to ask for their support in such grief?"
The answer is no. Despite how difficult it was for my parents, they eventually put the grief of losing their son aside to support me. I felt guilt for them doing what I wanted, but I convinced myself that my brother would want them to support me.
My brother took his own life when I was entering my second year of university. Throughout the first he had been my rock, and motivated me to continue with my education, despite my crippling depression telling me otherwise. We used to write each other motivational notes and post them to each other, in later years this proved more comforting than first thought. I had moved back after summer into my new accommodation and my parents had called me, urging me to come home as soon as I could. We had agreed for me to come home twice a month, so this was exceptionally odd. Upon arriving home I discovered that my brother had taken his own life, leaving a scribbled note as his last words to the world.
I cannot begin to emphasise how important support was in the days, weeks, months and now years that followed. If there is one thing my parents learnt from me, and in turn I learnt from them was that how important unconditional love is. If they had not told me how much they cared, or kept their affections silent, then I may not be telling you this today.
I graduated university last year, the old notes firmly in my hand. It served comfort to me, whilst ending the biggest chapter of my life. "You are stronger than you could ever imagine."
So if you struggle to understand what is happening to your child, then at the most show them you love them, and will do anything to make their experiences less daunting.
Overall what I learnt from discussions with young people were these two key points: " be supportive parents" and "show us you care." Two things a parent should be doing instinctively.
It is up to our generation to explain and educate. I am open about the issue of mental health with my siblings, and parents too. I have explained anything they lacked understanding in, or clarified any misconceptions. It is not easy to debunk lies/myths people believe, but it can be done, with time and some effort from your part.
When you are sitting down for your evening meal with family, bring up mental health. Share your research and experiences. Hopefully by making it acceptable 'dinner table discussion' our generations will develop a better understanding of mental health.