God is still good despite experiencing hard things (Romans 8:28).
I wasn't quite sure what age I should tell my children about my mental health struggles. At what age is a child even cognitive enough to grasp a secure understanding of a disease most adults don't fully understand? How do I explain an invisible illness that can cripple the mind of the strongest man to a child who has only made a few trips around the sun? What do I say, and how do I say it in a way that does not invoke fear or confusion? After all, my disease is genetic, and my children could inherit it.
Ask the Lord for Wisdom and Discernment in Prayer
One of the things I have let eat away at my sleep on occasion is worrying about what my children will think when they learn about my mental illness. Will they be embarrassed or ashamed of me? It's not something I hide as I write and speak about it publicly. My mental illness is something I can proudly say that I no longer have shame about. Jesus freed me from that prison several years ago. But what my kids think about me matters so much that I teared up just writing this sentence. So, I've prayed—a lot.
My mental health battle reared its ugly head shortly after the birth of my first son. For eight years, I have talked to God about how I will discuss my illness with my children. Should I initiate the conversation or wait for them to ask? How much information do I divulge? Lots of questions have surfaced, feeding my insecurity and worry. And I've taken these questions to the Lord and laid down the burdens, trusting that He would provide direction at the right time.
Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness for the Next Generation
My hesitation and worry about telling my children come from a genuine place of concern. Mental illness has a negative stigma that is compounded in our society by uneducated people, the media, and even in cartoons for young children. Words like "psycho," "mental," and "crazy" are commonplace in our vocabulary. We joke about "losing our minds" and say expressions about getting locked up or being institutionalized like it is a flippant thing. I'm guilty of this, too!
However, we can play a role in tearing down the stigma associated with mental illness by spreading awareness and sharing knowledge with our kids. We can have open conversations now that will let the next generation know that they are not alone in their mental health struggle. Troubling statistics display that we are certainly not the only ones struggling.
Mental illness and the detrimental effects it has on a person's life are not frivolous or flippant things. This is serious, and we are seeing alarming, increasing numbers of reports of mental illness. The Center for Disease Control reports that 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a mental illness. They estimate that 1 in 25 U.S. adults live with a severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depression. What's worse is that our youth and children are now more affected by mental health struggles than ever before, with reports of 1 in 5 youth (ages 13-18) who currently have or have had a debilitating mental illness during their lifetime.
Determine an Appropriate Age Based on the Individual Child
I worried about conveying such a serious topic with my free-spirited boys. But I also know that knowledge and awareness are power in the right hands. So, I wanted to be the one who told my sons about my mental health struggles. I decided that eight would be a good age for my naturally curious and intelligent oldest son. This age may be different for my youngest son based on his personality. Remember, there may be an appropriate age to have serious conversations with children, but we can always share our faith with them from the day they first breathe.
My son was eight years old when he asked me about my medication. I had the age right, but I didn't have to initiate the conversation as he asked me why I took prescriptions and he only took a vitamin. It was bedtime, and I assured his worried heart that I was completely healthy. Then I promised to explain why I had to take medicine the next day because it was a long story and it was late.
Change the Focus from Science to God
Then, I lost more sleep worrying about the exact words I would say in the upcoming conversation. I wished I had just gotten it over with that night, but God sent me a gift in the mail the next day. It was a book, "Life Changing Stories," written by thirty-four women who share stories of hope and transformation. I was honored to write a story titled "How Mental Illness Made Me a Better Person."
As I turned to the page in the book where my story begins, God reminded me that it is His story. It's not about me or my disease. It isn't about the technicalities, facts, or medical terms. It's about what God did in the midst of my suffering and how Jesus met me in my dark space. It's about my faith that He grew from a seed to a full bloom.
The story is about:
God's strength over my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Jesus over disease.
Spirit over fear.
Jehovah-Rapha, our Healer.
So, I told my son of an adventure with God that started shortly after his birth. I shared some scientific knowledge but focused on my faith in Jesus. I explained some of my symptoms and how mommy has to have doctors and medicine to be healthy. I mentioned that the brain is an organ just like a heart, and there are doctors who treat all of the parts of the body, including the brain. Then I told him about the beautiful people I've met over the last eight years and that everyone needs a little help occasionally. And being able to ask for help and accept help is one of the bravest things you can ever do.
Make It Relatable
Children can relate to feelings because they are learning to regulate and deal with big emotions. This conversation is an excellent opportunity to tell them you understand what it's like to feel sad, lonely, upset, scared, and worried. They need to know that the spectrum of emotions is a normal thing created by a God who created us in his likeness (Genesis 1:27). When Jesus, who is perfectly God and perfectly human, came to earth, He experienced all the same emotions we do.
Be Honest About Your Fears
Then I spoke the truth. I told my son that I was scared to tell him about my brain disease because it is something that people make fun of. Others look down on people who have mental illnesses. I told him I didn't want him or his brother to be ashamed of me. Then he said the most precious affirmation straight to my heart and soul. "I could never make fun of you or think less of you, momma. I love you."
Share the Light That You Have Gleaned from Your Story
I confessed that one of my greatest blessings beyond my family is that God has used my story to help shine a light in other people's corners. I didn't always view my trial in this positive light, but God woke me up over and over, and I know He is always good. Even if I still have to take medicine. Even if I still struggle with depression or am overcome with anxiety. God is still good despite experiencing hard things (Romans 8:28).
There Are More Conversations to Come
I told my son that we would continue to talk about mental health and he could ask me any questions at any time. It's too much to cover in one session, and we must monitor and be aware of it for the rest of our lives. I plan to leave an open door so he knows that he can come to me when he is dealing with mental health struggles.
Remember, They Are Children
We must remember that their cognitive reasoning differs from ours, and they might react differently than expected. Make it conversational and give them time to interject and add comments. I adore children's curiosity, giant imaginations, and the wild things they say. I read my son the story I wrote in the book that briefly summarizes the past eight years of mental health struggles and faith. Do you know what his key takeaway was? He was elated that the nameless baby in the story was him and that he was now famous. You've got to love their precious hearts!
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Halfpoint
Darcie Fuqua is a Business Analyst, Auburn Grad (War Eagle!), Christian blogger & podcast host, and mental health advocate. She is from the deep south of Alabama, where she currently resides with her husband, two energetic fun-loving boys, and a dog named Charlie. She loves sinking her toes in the sand, cuddling with her boys, and having great conversations over a table of good food. You can read more of her writing on her website www.leightonlane.com and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram. Check out Darcie’s latest project as cohost of Therapy in 10.