Growing up I did not understand why my mother would take frequent trips or vacations without me. I thought I needed to behave better, have higher grades, or avoid stressing her out so she would not take so many trips. She rarely smiled, but when she did it lit up a room. Her smiles were few and far between, so I made it a personal goal to make her smile more often. As I reflect on that goal as an adult, I now realize and understand why a task that appeared so simple was actually very difficult to achieve. My mother never seemed to engage in the world around her, she watched it from her safe place, a chair perched in front of the window. I knew we were poor, but I hoped my mother would travel outside the apartment more often. I tried to persuade my mother to go to the park, sit on the benches near our tiny apartment, or go for walks, but she never did. My mother left the apartment only when it was absolutely necessary to do so, such as, buying groceries, going to the bank, paying bills, etc.
It seemed like my mother’s sadness increased in intensity over the years, becoming more and more frequent. Her sadness was present all the time, however, the sadder she got the more vacations she took. As the youngest child of five, I would often ask my older siblings about my mother’s trips, where did she go? Did she have fun? Why does she take so many trips, but she still seemed so unhappy? Sometimes, my siblings would respond to my questions with very unclear responses, but most of the time they did not respond. Although, my siblings were significantly older than I was I do not believe they fully understood our mother’s illness. Mental illness is a topic my family tended to stray away from out of fear that it may be contagious. I did not learn until I was an adult, after my mother died that she struggled with mental illness. My mother never went on trips or took extended vacations, she was in the hospital. Knowing and understanding my mother was mentally ill now provides answers to all my lingering questions.
Unfortunately, the answers came too late for my mother as she was left to suffer in silence. We never spoke about mental illness; it was shrouded in secrecy. By denying the presence of mental illness we made it impossible for my mother to heal and feel supported. Denial allowed the disease of mental illness to not only live but thrive. This experience taught me how important it is to eliminate the shame and stigma associated with mental illness. Hiding or denying the existence of mental illness teaches children to be afraid or embarrassed by the disease.
Explaining mental illness to a child can be a bit challenging, but it can be done. Young children do not understand the words “depression” or “anxiety”, so it is important to use age appropriate language when speaking to your child. One of the most important steps a parent can take is to educate themselves about a specific disorder, consider your child’s age group, then locate material that is relevant to your child’s age in a language he or she can understand. Most parents struggle with forming the “right words” to educate children about mental illness, therefore, they do not have the conversation. Children are very observant; they notice changes in behavior and mood. They may be confused and even frightened by the changes in the person’s behavior, especially if that adult holds an important place in their lives.
I would like to think if I knew about my mother’s mental illness, we could have had a conversation about it, she would not have felt so alone with her illness. People struggling with mental illness require love and support to effectively manage the disease. When we ignore the signs and symptoms of mental illness we convey an unspoken message that the disorder is something to be ashamed of, something to be feared.
My mother suffered from major depressive disorder which is characterized by the following symptoms:
- Intense feelings of sadness
- Loss of interest/Lack of pleasure in things once enjoyed
- Memory loss/decline in recall and other cognitive issues
- Flat affect
- Changes in sleeping, e.g., excessive sleeping, inability to sleep, interrupted sleep
- Tiredness or lethargy
- Changes in weight that are not related to diet and exercise, e.g. weight increase or decrease
- Feelings of worthlessness
Having an open, honest discussion will help your child trust you and will clear up some of the misconceptions they might have about mental illness. It will also help to decrease the anxiety that comes from uncertainty. Being informed also lessens the anger, confusion and surprise children might feel if they are left to discover the illness on their own, or if someone else confronts them with negative comments about the disorder.