A significant portion of people will experience some form of a mental illness at one point in their lives. Of this larger number, a portion experiences chronic mental illness which means that the illness is ongoing. These range from depression to schizophrenia. Whether or not mental illness is apparent in the child’s personal life through family or friends, it is important to expose children to the concept of mental illness.

Mental illness is not only present but obvious in everyday life. Through the media we see seriously disturbed individuals who commit heinous crimes, as well as celebrities or others on TV discussing their experience with a particular mental disorder. In daily life, a child may be interacting with a person who has mental health issues or maybe just walking by someone who is homeless and talking to themselves. In order to reduce confusion and help the child to grow into a more accepting and supportive adult, discussions about mental illness are useful.

The content of the discussion with your child will depend on the age of the child, as well as the child’s experience with those who have a mental health issue. The following are points to consider that can be tailored to each age group or within various circumstances.

  1. Explain that mental illness is like other physical illnesses, except in this case the mind doesn’t feel well. There are similarities and differences. Mental and physical illnesses are similar in the way that a person can have this from no fault of their own, a person may have to see doctors, and a person is able to receive help. They are different in the way that it may be less obvious when someone’s mind is not well, a person’s emotions or thinking can be affected more, and that there is more of a stigma for those with a mental illness.
  2. Many times children or young teens can be fearful that they will catch the illness or that they are going to “go crazy” as well. This may occur especially in younger children with a parent who has a serious mental illness, which is another reason that communicating about this is necessary to reduce the confusion. Depending on the child’s situation, it may be important to discuss the fact that they are healthy and that there is no reason to worry. Or, if the child experiences symptoms of some type, another conversation should take place to help the child normalize their experience and to feel hopeful and accepting of help.
  3. Encourage the child to be kind and patient with those who do not feel well. This includes mental illness along with any other type of illness. Discuss the idea of compassion and not necessarily feeling sorry for others, but having an appreciation for the struggle that some experience. Or, respect that another person is able to overcome or manage these types of obstacles. Being able to be compassionate is a beautiful trait to have, and teaching children to be compassionate toward mental illness is another way to strengthen them as loving human beings.

This article's content is from a blog by Pamela LiVecchi, Psy.D., posted at psychcentral.com.