By Kelley Clink
When I was 15 years old, my family moved from suburban Detroit to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was the mid-’90s — there was no texting. No Facebook. I didn’t have an email address, and long-distance phone calls were seven cents a minute. In a matter of months I lost touch with all of my friends, most of whom I’d known since the first grade. I fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide.
With the help of counseling and medication, I recovered. My brother, diagnosed with bipolar disorder just two years after my attempt, was not so lucky. When we were in our early 20s, he took his own life.
Earlier this month, I wrote an article called “10 Things I Want My Son to Know Because I Once Attempted Suicide.” The article was a distillation of everything I’ve learned about suicide prevention and mental health since my brother’s death. Most people left supportive comments. A few shared their own heartbreaking stories of loss. But there were a handful of people with, let’s say, a strong opinion. Well, maybe not even that strong. Just an opinion. And it was one I didn’t expect.
“Don’t even tell him. He doesn’t need to know.”
The commenter wasn’t referring to my carefully culled list of advice for my son, including being able to share his feelings and knowing how to reach out for help — she was talking about the suicide attempt itself. Several others echoed her sentiment. When I read their comments, I felt what Anne Lamott calls “that full body Niacin-flush of toxic shame.” And I wondered, My god, are they right? Does he really need to know?
I thought about it for a few seconds before I realized that the short answer, MY answer, is yes.
As I recently said in a HuffPost Live segment discussing mental health with children, I’ve always known that I would tell my son the truth about his uncle — both how he lived and how he died. I’ve always known I would tell him the truth about me. I want to tell him the truth about everything — even the scary, complicated stuff. Especially the scary, complicated stuff. Because sometimes life is scary and complicated, and I think it’s important for kids to know that. Actually, I think kids already know that. What they need to know is that it’s scary and complicated for everyone, not just them.
Does this mean I’m going to incorporate my history of depression into bedtime stories? No. I plan on discussing mental illness and my experiences with it at the appropriate time when my son is the appropriate age. And just when will that be, you ask? I don’t know. He’s seven-months-old. I’m hoping I have a few years.
All kidding aside, I guess I have some opinions about this, too. I think that to keep a family history of mental illness a secret is to perpetuate the stigma. By not telling our children about our experiences with mental illness, or the experiences of other family members, we are telling them that there is something to be ashamed of. That shame is what keeps people from asking for help. That shame is what killed my brother.
What you share of yourself and your past with your children, and when and how you share it, are deeply personal decisions. They depend on many factors: age, circumstance, maturity. But talking about mental illness with your children — whether or not you or a family member live with it — is necessary. Nearly seven percent of people in the U.S. live with depression. Eighteen percent have an anxiety disorder. That’s one out of every four people. If your child never experiences a mental illness, chances are pretty good that he or she knows someone who will.
The stigma ends when the conversation begins.
If you need help talking to your children about mental illness, check out the articles listed below or talk with a mental health professional. If you or someone you love is in crisis, please call 1-800-273-8255.