Talking about mental illness with young people
Family & friends can be great supports to young people by talking with them about their parent's mental illness.
Why talk about it?
When a parent is unwell, having another family member or trusted family friend to talk to can really help. Children and young people cope better during a crisis if:
- they understsand what is happening
- they know they are not to blame
- their routines continue (such as school and after-school activities)
- they know who will look after them if their parent cannot (and how they will stay connected with their parent)
- they have a reliable adult to talk to about their feelings
Talking provides an opportunity to relieve fears and anxieties and stops children and young people from filling in gaps with the wrong information.
The same principle used in aircraft emergencies really helps here: put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to help others. In other words, before you talk to young people about mental illness, make sure you have a good understanding of it.
Appreciating the effects of mental illness on a parent's behaviour and how this might impact on a young person is important. You should have a basic understanding of the particular mental illness a parent has, including treatments and support options. (A good self-education starting point is this page about mental illness, warning signs and symptoms and also the simple information at our 'Teenagers/Young People' section.)
Prepare yourself to answer questions such as:
- What is a mental illness?
- Who can get it? (And how it's diagnosed)
- What causes it - and will I catch it?
- What help is there?
Family members as well as friends will certainly benefit from doing a little homework before discussing mental illness. Ultimately, when you are knowledgeable about the topic you will feel more in control and confident about explaining it to young people.
So what do I say?
- You'll need to consider the young person's age and ability to understand information. Even very young children can gain some understanding of what's going on, if told “mummy’s not well, you’ve done nothing wrong and she’s getting help so she can get better.”
- When you start the conversation, young people are likely to ask questions. You won’t necessarily have all the answers, but being prepared really helps. Be honest, but positive, hopeful and reassuring - and encourage further questions.
- Encourage the young person to ask questions - but remember to be honest about what you know and what you don't. If a young person has questions that you can't answer, reassure them you'll try to find the right information - and follow through.
- Note that one discussion is never enough – a real understanding takes time and children’s questions and needs for information change as they grow. Encourage them to ask questions or raise concerns whenever they want - and then be there for them when they need it.
- Remember also to tell kids and young people they can call 24 hours a day to speak to people anonymously at Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.
We have prepared some helpful information sheets on speaking to children of different age groups about parental mental illness. Whilst these are prepared primarily for parents, family members and friends can also benefit from the information.
Are you a family friend (or part of extended family)?
If you're a family friend (or extended family) and you find yourself talking to a young person about their parent's illness:
- Note that it is a very good idea to tell a parent with mental illness about the conversation with their child (you may need to wait until they are well again.) Just be sure to ask the young person for their permission to mention it.
- Encourage the young person to talk to their parent further when they are feeling well.
It's possible that a parent (or their partner) may approach you when they are feeling well, and ask you to talk to their children or support them when they are unwell. It's a good idea in this instance to ask if there are any particular things they might want you to communicate or emphasise to their children when they are ill - so there are no mixed messages.
You can find more helpful information at the websites linked to below.
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