I am constantly carefully navigating the fine line between what my teens are ready to hear about my personal life (like how many guys I dated in college) and what they still should be shielded from (like what happened on those dates). But one topic I have always shared with them is that, throughout the course of my life, I have sought psychological help when I felt that I was struggling, and that I couldn’t bounce back on my own.
Now, I recognize that, for some parents, telling their children about their own therapy or medication would be akin to revealing that you had spent your college years stoned or that “Fifty Shades of Grey” has reinvigorated your marriage. For me, telling my kids that mental health professionals were a critical part of our family’s health care team was a piece of insurance against the future stigmatization they might otherwise feel when – and if – they needed help themselves.
Mental Health Professionals Are a Part of My Family’s Health Care
Good call. By middle school, my son Jacob was diagnosed with ADHD, and my daughter Sophie was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling). Social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists became a staple of our lives. And my kids not only thrived as a result of getting psychological and pharmaceutical care, they are both game to talk about it with others to reduce the stigma.
How game? Sophie wrote her common app essay about her struggles with mental illness, and her HS valedictorian speech was about the importance of asking for help when you’re struggling. And then, she published a book for teens and their adults called, Don’t Tell Me to Relax: One Teen’s Journey to Survive Anxiety, and How You Can, Too, and spent her senior year of high school on a speaking tour to get people of all ages talking about mental illness.
Now that Jacob and Sophie are heading to college, it’s time to have a new “big talk” for two reasons: First, because they’re about to face new challenges; and second, because they’re likely to meet other students who haven’t been as exposed or experienced as they’ve been.
Three Things About Mental Health to Discuss With Your Teen
1. Many of us (of all ages) will ignore or avoid difficult emotions, rather than face or feel them. Here’s what it might look like at college:
• Working without taking breaks
• Sleeping that interferes with other activities and relationships
• Sexual activity that interferes with other activities and relationships
• Helping others excessively while ignoring own needs
• Frequent drinking or drug use
• Excessive exercise
• Excessive eating and/or food restriction
• Lack of interest in being alone
• Lack of interest in being with other people
• Excessive television, video games, or other forms of technology
• Extreme cleaning/organizing
If you start to notice a pattern like this in yourself, talk to an adult about it – a professor you’ve connected with, your RA, a counselor, or your parents (remember us?). And if you see something here in someone else, say something like, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been hanging out in your room for the last week. I’m not here to judge, but just wanted to check in with you. How’s it going?” And then really listen.
2. Offer help, but then let the professionals do their jobs.
In 11th grade, Jacob overheard one of his friends making comments like “I’m not sure I want to live.” After telling his friend that he wanted him to live, Jacob raced to his guidance counselor and reported the incident. His counselor was grateful that Jacob shared his concerns, but then became concerned about Jacob when he started checking in every single day to make sure that someone had intervened. She assured him, “We are taking care of this. This is our job now. Your job is school.”
If you recognize that someone may need some support, let them know that they can go talk to their RA, a professor, a parent, someone at health services, or a counselor. You might even offer to join them for the first call or conversation if they’re feeling reluctant or intimidated. You might even follow up and ask, “how did it go?” or “how are you feeling these days?” or “anything I can help you with?” or even, “when do you want to grab some pizza?”
And then remember, as your guidance counselor in high school told you, that your job is school. You can be concerned and caring without becoming someone’s caregiver.
3. Watch your language, and encourage others to watch theirs.
What they say: “I’m so OCD!”
What they may mean: “I like things neat.”
What they say: “I’m totally schizo!”
What they may mean: “I can’t make up my mind!” or “I’m feeling up, and then I’m down.”
What they say: “I’m going to kill myself.”
What they may mean: “I’m so pissed that I got a C- on my test!”
Words matter. Words create reality. The words you use to describe your emotions, states of mind, and mental health can contribute to the stigma – or reduce it.
Say what you mean. And when you hear someone using language even that is “just an expression” get underneath the words to find out what they really mean. So, if your classmate says, “I’m so ADD!”, ask, “Do you mean you’re having trouble focusing, or is it something else?”
That will help your friend clarify what’s really going on, while leaving the diagnoses to the professionals. You don’t have to become the “language police”, but you can be mindful, intentional, and a role model for how people talk about mental illness.
Yes, it’s time to have another “big talk” because mental health is a big deal – for my kids, and for yours.
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