Tips about how parents can talk to their child about mental health and/or suicidal ideation

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States. 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year. 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, poor mental health and mental illness are not considered the same things. A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness. Likewise, a person diagnosed with a mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental, and social well-being.

Mental health is considered a positive mental status, with a person capable of coping with normal life stressors as well as the ability to work productively. Whereas, psychopathology is a study of mental and social disorders and also a synonym for mental illness. Webster’s dictionary (1963) defines psychopathology as “the science of dealing with disease and abnormalities of the mind.” The word disease implies illness, an entity to be treated – most likely by those who are “disease free.” A division is then created by those who are allegedly “well” and those who are “sick.” The notion that the definitions of health and illness themselves are largely social constructs gets lost, as does an appreciation that we all fall along a continuum of mental illness and health, and our place on that continuum is not static.

If we can move to an understanding of pathology that is more closely linked to its Greek origin, with pathos meaning suffering, we can then use the term psychopathology to connote not just disease, but the suffering of the mind or soul, a dis-ease. We all have experienced elements of suffering and disharmony, with which we are able to manage with varying degrees of success at different points in our lives. Biological, psychological, and social forces combine to determine where we fall in a given moment along the many possible continuums from mental illness to mental health. (Adapted from “Inside Out and Outside In,” by J. Berzoff, L.M. Flanagan, and P. Hertz, p.312. Copyright 2016.)

With this in mind, it’s important for parents/caregivers to first normalize mental health/illness when speaking with their children and others.

Here are some helpful tips on how to talk to children about mental health and/or suicidal ideation:

  • Don’t be afraid (display empathy and compassion)
  • Normalize (everyone struggles with mental health/illness)
  • Offer support (yours and professional supports)
  • Tell them they’re not alone
  • Acknowledge their feelings
  • Listen
  • Let them know it’s ok to ask for help
  • Address negative stigmas
    • Mental illness is a sign of weakness
    • It can be taken care of on own
    • People who experience mental illness are “crazy”
    • Therapy and treatment don’t work

If anyone is expressing feelings of wanting to hurt themselves or others, please seek assistance.

National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255

In Illinois, CARES line: 800-345-9049

National Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

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