How I'm Telling My Kids They're Likely to Develop a Mental Illness

Kimberly Zapata
·4 min read

I was first diagnosed with a mental health condition when I was 17 years old, but I knew something was “wrong” years before. I was sad and despondent. I spent my time journaling, listening to Linkin Park and Papa Roach, and writing angsty preteen poetry. I felt lonely, isolated and invisible. I walked the streets of my town with my eyes turned down and my headphones on. I was struggling academically and with my self-esteem. I felt guilty — all the time. I also regularly feigned illness to avoid school and “check out” of life. I faked fevers. I once covered my body in measles-like makeup. Why? Because I wanted to stay in bed. Because I needed to stay in bed. Everything hurt, and the world was too much.

Of course, I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what depression was, or what anxiety was. No one talked about mental illness — or feelings at all, for that matter — in my family, and I learned at a young age that I should be stoic. I was taught to hide my faults and flaws. Unfortunately, this became very problematic when I felt the first flutterings of depression — because I thought I was crazy. I believed I was helpless, hopeless and alone.

But a strange thing happened my junior year: A teacher suggested I go to therapy. Scratch that: The school forced me to go to therapy, and that’s when I first heard the words “depression” and “anxiety.” Soon after, I was diagnosed with (several) mental health disorders.

To say I was surprised would be an understatement. After years of pain and suffering, I learned I wasn’t “crazy.” There was a name for my feelings, and a reason. And with that information came relief. I wasn’t better, but I wasn’t bad; I wasn’t alone.

And I want my children to feel the same. I want them to be informed about mental health — to know what I didn’t at their age.

You see, mental illness is hereditary. According to a 2013 study, the most common psychiatric disorders are genetically linked. This means there is a good chance my children — or, at the very least, one of my children — will develop a mental health condition. I want them to understand what they may think, experience and feel. I also want them to realize that if any of the symptoms of said illnesses pop up, they do not have to suffer alone or in silence.

Do I know exactly how I’m going to explain this to my kids? Not really. My youngest is 18 months and my oldest is seven; so far, all she knows is that Mommy gets sad. Sometimes Mommy needs to stop and breathe or run or rest. She also knows Mommy takes medication to keep her healthy. But I have not yet disclosed the details of my illness; I haven’t told her about depression, anxiety, mania, and hypomania.

But I will. As she grows, so too with the depth of our conversations — because talking about health is important. Talking about fears and feelings is important, and talking about mental health matters, in our family and every family.

Talking about mental health with our kids is an essential conversation, much like “the sex talk.” And perhaps more importantly, taking time to inform them and address their questions will help kids understand mental illness if and when it becomes a bigger factor in their lives — making it less frightening and giving them the tools they need to cope.

So I will talk to my children regularly and frequently. I will speak about mental health the same way I do about physical health, i.e. I will share my struggles and feelings as I would a tummy ache or a sore throat. I will be honest with my children. I will tell them mental illness runs in their family, just like cancer or heart disease — but as with those conditions, I will let them know there is help and hope. Mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can be treated.

Talking about mental health with our kids is an essential conversation, much like “the sex talk.”

And I will be flexible. I will meet my kids where they are, when they are.

Because while I cannot protect my children from the pain of mental illness, I can inform them, educate them, equip them with knowledge, and support them. I can let them know they are not — and will never be — alone.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org, or text “START” to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.

 

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