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Helping children learn about mental illness

There has been a recent shift in public awareness and a new willingness to talk about mental illness and its impact. Many campaigns through social and other media, such as R U OK?, have supported and enabled people to share their own experiences of mental ill health.

'I was a bit anxious about catching it [mental illness] but now I know that it can’t kill you and that it’s never my fault. It’s not getting a cold really but I learned it wasn’t a cold and it can’t get caught like that…'

 - Girl, age 11 cited in (Grove, Reupert, & Maybery, 2013)

Children need information and parents need your help to give it to them

It is encouraging that in many communities, people are having conversations about mental health and illness. Many parents with mental health difficulties do hold concerns about the best way to talk to their child about it. These concerns are often based on:

  • fears that talking to their child may make things worse
  • that their child doesn’t notice or understand that their parent is not well or not coping
  • they may overburden their child with information that the child doesn’t understand or need to know about

In our work with families, we can encourage and support open conversations between parents and their children about mental illness.

Practice prompt

When information is considered and provided in an appropriate way to a child about their parent’s mental health issue, it can help the child make sense of their world, make them feel less isolated, and help them realise the illness is not their fault.

What children and young people tell us

When children and young people have knowledge about their parent’s mental health issue:

  • they have the language to talk about their life with their friends
  • they have the language to understand it in their own head
  • they can cope with unpredictable moments
  • they are less worried about their mum or dad
  • they feel less confused about what mental health is
  • they feel more connected to their community
  • they know who they can talk to if they need help
  • they understand more about what it’s like for their parent
  • they feel more confident to talk about it

(Based on (Grove, Reupert, & Maybery, 2013) and (Reupert, Maybery, & Kowalenka, 2013).

Further reading

To further understand children’s views and feedback on receiving information and education on parental mental illness, read the article Gaining knowledge about parental mental illness: Does it empower children?  

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