Every year on #Bellletstalk day, we are inundated with the personal stories of so many Canadians that are currently in the throes of mental illness or are impacted by mental illness in some way. There are many discussions around how the sheer number of people afflicted by mental health conditions suggest that a profound emphasis should be placed on ‘continuing the conversation’ about mental health as a mechanism of ‘fighting the stigma’. While these statements are made with extremely good intentions, many people, (particularly parents) can find that they are at a loss in terms of how to accomplish this mission in their own homes. How young should kids be when we start these conversations? How do we go about having these discussions with older children whose peers might be affected by severe mental illnesses that they don’t understand? How do promote a climate of tolerance and respect in a time when so many mental health challenges are sensationalized on the media, serving to erode people’s understanding of what constitutes a ‘true’ symptom versus the media’s dramatizations? While there are no simple answers to these questions, there are certainly active steps that families can take towards raising tolerant children.
This doesn’t have to be something that is punitive, because many children are only repeating words that they hear from others in the playground. Keeping in mind the impact of the media in terms of sensationalizing mental health issues, it is important to really engage with kids about the meaning behind their words. If you hear them use a term that could be construed as prejudicial and aggressive, stop and check in with them. Ask them what they “think that that word means”. Do an empathy exercise with the child or children in question to help them to spell out how that word, phrase, or comment might make others feel. Sometimes, children use these words to hide deeper fears, so use this to explore whether or not something might have been said because your daughter has a fear that she might have a mental health condition or if that phrase was used to mask your son’s concern about a friend.I want to give a special shout out to all of our wonderful families here at Behavior Matters who support their children by encouraging them to seek the services that they need. For allowing your children to come into a space where they can speak openly about their experiences without being expected to hide behind a veil of shame for the sake of “image.” Know that in your efforts to support your children in getting the support that they need to be successful and thrive, that you are shaping the next generation to see these services no differently than one would view a visit to the doctor or dentist. Because after all, that’s all they really should be.