According to the Australian Government’s Mental Health of Children and Adolescents Report, in the 12 months prior to the survey around one in seven children and adolescents aged four to 17 years experienced a mental disorder. This is equivalent to an estimated 560,000 Australian children and adolescents. The report found the prevalence of mental disorders varied considerably between males and females, with 16 percent of males and 12 percent of females having had a mental disorder in the previous 12 months.
Talking about mental health with children isn’t always easy, but it is important so they understand what mental health is, how to maintain it and what to do if it goes wrong.
When children aren’t given information, they fill in the blanks. Talking openly is an opportunity to correct misconceptions and decrease the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.
Within a family, there may be varying ideas about the causes of mental illness, feelings about treatments and their effectiveness, or fears about what will happen if something is said out loud.
So, how do you talk openly about mental health with your son?
Here are three suggestions:
1. Start the conversation.
It can often be hard to start these discussions so look out for a conversation starter. A movie that features a character with mental health challenges or a celebrity who has had a positive experience could make for good entry points. You may overhear your son talking with his friends using terms like “crazy,” you could use that moment as a way to start the conversation.
2. Find the words.
Professor of Psychology and Director of the Children, Health, Infancy, Learning, Development (CHILD) lab at Ryerson University in Toronto, Jean-Paul Boudreau, suggests trying to find a frame of reference your children can relate to. “They may know someone who is sick or feeling very sad. Weave the narrative of mental illness into something they know or have witnessed,” he says.
Remember to remind your son that there is no such thing as a stupid question. It’s important to listen to them without judgement, and to refrain from telling them how to feel.
Boudreau suggests finding ways to explain to your child that an illness in the brain is no different from one in the body, such as diabetes. By making this comparison, children may be able to better understand how a family member is experiencing their particular illness and how they can be treated to get better.
3. Make it relevant.
There is no age too young to start the conversation, but, of course, how you talk to your adolescent son will be different to how you talk to your toddler. According to a mental health promotion and resilience facilitator at the Canadian Mental Health Association, based in Hamilton, Ont., Jill Dennison, “Don’t overwhelm young children with statistics and definitions. Describe symptoms in an age-appropriate way.”
One example Dennison shares is when talking about depression you can explain to your child that everyone feels sad at times in their life, but depression is when that sadness starts to interfere with daily life. The sadness becomes overwhelming and lasts for a longer period of time. “As a child ages, their knowledge and understanding grows, and their questions evolve,” she says. At that point, the conversation can deepen.
As parents, we have an instinctive understanding of our children. If you feel that something is not quite right with your son, but he won’t open up, trust your instincts. Enlist the help of an outsider such as a trusted teacher, school counsellor or family doctor. If however, any of the above signs are significant in terms of their intensity, persistence and impact on your son’s functioning, or they represent a significant change for your son, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional.
Our mission at Trinity Grammar School is to provide a thoroughly Christian education for boys from Pre-Kindergarten to Year 12, imparting knowledge and understanding of the world we live in, and recognising the importance of spiritual qualities in every sphere of learning.
Trinity’s Pastoral Care guidelines focus on the fundamentals of good parenting — providing both care and discipline — enabling boys to grow into self-confident, trustworthy and resilient young men. Combined with an ongoing partnership between the School and home, your son will thrive in a consistent, caring and nurturing environment.
The Trinity Education Support Services (TESS) department offers a wide range of support for boys, including those who need social and emotional support. The TESS Counselling department comprises psychologists who offer individual counselling and assessment for learning and mental health needs, small group-based programmes, parent information sessions, and assistance with life skills programming and year group presentations.
Our Life Skills Programme is part of a whole School approach to health and wellbeing. In conjunction with the development of ethical, moral and religious values, its goal is to enhance boys’ capacity to be emotionally resilient and socially competent.
To learn more about the Trinity difference, and how we support boys’ mental health through the demands of Year 12, download our Year 12 Life Skills Programme.