Talking about mental health by Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

7th November 2017

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We know that for years mental illness has been a taboo subject, this is beginning to change and shift, but it can still be an area we find hard to talk to children about, particularly young children.

I firmly believe we need to help children to understand about mental illness, we need to give them the words to explain the illness, and we need to help them feel safe and know they can ask questions. If we don’t talk about it, this is suggesting it is shameful, if we don’t acknowledge our feelings around it, this is unhealthy for everyone.

I grew up with a mum with Bipolar, when I had my children I needed to help them understand their Granny’s illness. My children are now 18 and 20, when they were small, there was very little advice or guidance on how to talk to children about mental illness.

Sometimes it can be hard to find the right words to explain a mental illness to children; we can be worried about using the wrong words. I want to reassure people it is better to be open and honest, it is better to discuss and explain rather than keeping quiet. We need to remember that children notice when something is different, e.g., if a parent is very depressed and behaving differently. It can be very frightening and confusing for children if we don’t explain to them what is happening, there is the risk that the children will fill in the gaps, they will make up their own stories, their explanation. When children have things explained to them, they are in a better position to be able to understand, feel safe and cope with what is happening. We need to explain to children in a clear way about the parent/adult being unwell. We can do this with under 5’s just in the way we do this with older children, but we need to use age and stage appropriate language. Some examples of words you can use are:

“Mummy is feeling poorly right now; she is feeling sad and tired. She has an illness that makes her sad. She will get better, but right now she is very sad.”

Many excellent websites can help you to find the right words. Ones I would recommend in the UK are [1]and Mentalhealth[2].

Books and films are an excellent resource to explain to children about mental illness. I wrote a book last year called Mummy’s Got Bipolar[3] this has recently been turned into a free animation on youtube [4] Other good books are:

The Princess and the Fog by Lloyd Jones published by Jessica Kingsley Publisher

Pretend friends: a book about schizophrenia and other illness that cause hallucinations by Alice Hoyle published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Not today, Celeste! : A dogs tale about her human’s depression by Liza Stevens published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.





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