What conversations do you remember having with your parents as a child growing up? Do you remember having the “birds and bees” discussion? How about a discussion about friendships, college, goals, and your career? Probably, right. Now… what about mental illness? At what age did you have that conversation? Did that conversation even happen for you?
As a mental health professional, naturally I spend a great deal of time and research attempting to fill in the gaps and holes within the area of mental health. In attempts to settle my own thoughts about the topic of mental illness, I began to reflect on my childhood and specifically conversations that I remember having with my parents. I realized that a conversation about mental illness was not one that I could recollect so I got to thinking, I am sure that my parents were not the only ones who didn’t discuss mental illness with their children. I asked a group of people to share their memories of the significant conversations that they remember having with their parents growing up. As I hypothesized, most people responded with recalling conversations about sex, pregnancy, college, identity, respect, cultural pride and how to navigate being black in America, yet hardly anyone could remember having a conversation about mental health.
Of the 20 people that I asked, only 2 people said that their parents had a conversation about mental health. These conversations that they remembered were either a onetime occurrence or it was framed in the context that someone that they knew was having a “mental breakdown” or someone was being labeled crazy. But mental illness itself was never explored or explained. There was no conversation about diagnoses. There was no conversation about signs and feelings of depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, psychosis, etc and how to seek help if you are struggling.
I then followed up with a semi rhetoric question: Why can we all relate to having these “normative” conversations as children, but mental health conversations are left out. The most accurate response I agreed with was that mental health conversations weren’t as mentioned because they really only apply if you are exposed to it. Pregnancy, sex, etc are things experienced by all kids eventually. This sentiment makes sense to me theoretically but not logically. The numbers don’t lie. According to Mental Health America, 13.2% of the U.S. population identify as being Black or African American. Of those, over 16% had a diagnosable mental illness in the past year, which is over 6.8 million people. Yet pregnancy and sex are frequently discussed while mental illness is not.
I’ve come to this conclusion:
One of the issues with mental illness in our community is that we do not talk about it as if it does not exist.
Mental illness is out of sight, out of mind until we are physically forced to confront it. But isn’t that a little too late? Postponing this conversation until we need to talk about it furthers the problem. As adults we struggle to simply talk about mental illness because as children and adolescents we didn’t even acknowledge it! How can we then expect those to seek treatment, understanding, and cope with their diagnosis in a healthy way when they have never been in a safe and comfortable space to acknowledge its existence?
The reality is mental illness can affect any and everyone. We need to reframe these conversations and attain more knowledge regarding mental illness, no matter how uncomfortable. Despite the norms and unfamiliarity, we need to get uncomfortable to be comfortable talking about mental illness.*It should not be overlooked that mental illness and assistance is not as readily available in our communities as compared to our counterparts (i.e, information, resources, funding for rehabs, clinics, non profits, etc) which adds to the “invisibility” of mental illness as a problem, however the dialogue still needs to happen.* This is a real issue.
While the “birds and bees” topic is still important, mental health and illness should be added to the rotation of discussions with our children as well.