Yesterday I was asked: how do you explain mental health to a child? The child in question being 4 years old. Although I will never have my own children, it is an important to realise with an increase in mental health that we consider it from a child’s point of view and not ignore their questions. So, I felt it was an important point to ponder. N.B. I am not a trained counsellor but considering a basic course in 2016 as many have said I should be one, but use my own experiences to offer support and advice to friends.
Immediately I remembered my step-mum after my breakdown and suicidal thoughts said I could not stay with her, my dad and step-sister as was not fair on my step-sister as she was too young (I was almost thirty where as she was twelve). My own parents split up when I was eleven, so thought when I was her age I had already gone through a major traumatic experience. Equally, she was of the age when lots of changes would be occurring and have questions about life. Was she really too young to understand why I felt the way I did or was this the stigma of mental health kicking me at my lowest ebb?
My step-mum also would never let me explain fully why I was depressed to her and events had become the way they are. I was having therapy at the time so I could understand my past and how I got to where I was today. So what I had learnt from therapy, I could never put into practise, for as soon as my mum’s name was mentioned, she’d go deaf; my mum had painted her (wrongly) as a scarlet woman thus could not hear a bad word about her. It was incidents like that every time I saw her that lead to my re-estrangement with my father, as she would corner me to ask me again and again, but not give her the answers she felt I should be saying. How could I explain when what needed said was not being heard?
My family never talk about things, so all sorts that hurt me from physically to emotionally and mentally can still trigger or impact upon me decades later as cannot always move on from them. Only the other week I had a panic attack at the dentist, partly through a fear I was choking as I nearly blacked out and my fear of people coming in my face after things my brother did to me thirty years ago, which my parents never punished. I once nearly punched an optician as he came close to my face when helping me try contact lenses and my head kept thinking he was going to strangle me like my brother kept trying to do. I would never knowingly hurt anyone, so both incidents left me crying and shaking at being a fool to let the past strangle my present and possible future. However, it also tells me that I also need further therapy to move on from them.
Going back to the original question I was asked. I feel honesty is the best policy, especially with children, but just how do you tell a small child about something many adults do not understand or accept? The friend told me the child already knew they cried, got angry and took medication, but as children often do, wanted to know more. It made me consider both my nieces, one almost 4 and the other almost 5, how would I explain how Auntie Fi’s health? The eldest already asked why on why I did not do certain things. I also felt that children need reassurance and that it is not them, but their parents still love them and always will.
I thought back to my own childhood, how I used the Care Bears to show how I felt. When I was seven, my tummy felt like Grumpy Bear with a cloud on it with the drops feeling like the tears I had in my tummy. He was the only Care Bear I was never allowed to own, as my mum found his image too depressing! Ironic given it was me trying to tell her I was depressed from events at home and the bullying at school.
I looked up an image of Grumpy Bear on the internet, and immediately hit upon an idea. The friend could colour in with and/or supporting their child the image of the bear, describing how sometimes they felt like the bear, the raindrops were like the tears he cried and medication the hearts that stopped the raindrops falling as much, which together with their loved made more hearts form. My friend felt this was a good idea, but reminded them they knew their child in terms of development and sensitivity required.
Discussing mental health is not easy, whether it is with a child, teenager or adult. However, it is by discussing what it means to us and impacts our lives with family, friends and colleagues that will end this terrible stigma, which I believe should have been left in the 20th century. In many ways discussing mental health is like discussing having cancer, diagnosis under either umbrella term can change lives forever but they do not have to mean the end. We all feel like Grumpy Bear some days, needing the love of others to be the hearts when sometimes we forget to love ourselves and know it is okay to cry like the raindrops, as the sunshine after the rain is almost worth dancing in the street!
© Fi S. J. Brown