Brain Sickness: How We Should Talk to Kids about Mental Illness

A friend of mine once told me about a conversation he had in high school. His friend admitted that whenever he was driving, he felt the urge to jump out of the car while it was speeding down the freeway. My friend’s response was “Oh, that’s normal. I feel that way all the time.” It wasn’t until years later that he realized he had been living with acute clinical depression and anxiety for the better part of his adolescence. He had never discussed his mental health with his parents, never considered that he could be at risk for something that only happens to “traumatized people.”

This is a common story. Though our society has made vitally important strides in how it addresses mental health, that has not necessarily translated to widespread public awareness and acceptance. To a large degree, the idea of developing a mental disorder is normalized only in theory and vastly less so in practice. According to a 2015 survey by UK-based Time to Change and funded by the Department of Health, 55% of parents in the survey sample had never once spoken to their children about mental health issues.This is especially jarring when one considers that one in six people worldwide will develop a mental illness in their lifetime according to the Mental Health Foundation. Moreover, according to the World Health Organization, “Improving the ability of families to address potentially debilitating mental disorders in the context of the family is a key to humane care.” The bottom line is clear: parents are not prioritizing the way they educate their children on mental health. What we’re doing now isn’t working.

One of the things I hear most often from other students struggling with mental illness is the fear that their parents will be disappointed. Even if the student knows they will be supported in their recovery, there still lingers a feeling of responsibility, as though it is the fault of the child for developing their illness. If we are to improve the way we support those with mental illness, then we must change the way we talk about it, the way we as a society understand it. It is imperative that we educate ourselves on the nature of mental illness and treat it as what it is: an illness.

As Thomas R. Insel, MD describes it, mental illness is no different from any other illness. It strikes with the same indiscrimination as a flu virus.  “The only difference here,” he says, “is that the organ of interest is the brain instead of the heart or pancreas. But the same basic principles apply.” The behavioral elements that contribute to mental illness should not encourage the stigma that surrounds it any more than they encourage stigma around heart disease, diabetes, or even the common cold. The fact that the brain is the offending organ does not change the fact that the patient is suffering with an illness for which they did not ask, which they did not earn. As with any illness, the development of mental illness is not indicative of character flaws, weakness, or a lack of worth. What patients need is support and care from those around them and treatment in accordance to their condition. After all, you wouldn’t tell someone with hepatitis to simply try hot yoga.

When young people are educated about their mental health, the conversation must diverge from the all-too commonplace judgment and stigma young people fear today. To do this, mental health must carry the same implications as any other illness. The conversation must prioritize support and recovery; it must give information about symptoms, warning signs, and options for treatment; it must become acceptable to trust what kids say about their own mental well-being. In the same way that one might make a doctor’s appointment for a lingering cough, recognizing the signs of deteriorating mental health and treating them promptly must be normalized. With the consistent recontextualization of mental health, we can create a new culture where mental health simply exists as another fundamental aspect of healthcare.

 

Brooke Morris is a third-year English major with an emphasis in creative writing. She can be reached at brookeam@uci.edu.