Explaining Depression to Children

As I am sure you are aware, one in three people have a (diagnosable) mental health condition. I add the word diagnosable as everyone has some sort of mental idiosyncrasy which doesn’t fit in with the “norm”, be it a phobia of spiders, having to wash the dishes in a particular order or always wanting to drive the same route to work.

I have depression with (currently well managed) health anxieties. Due to my health anxieties I have developed emetophobia to go alongside my arachnophobia and aviophobia. While I try very hard to keep my phobias hidden from my children, I am unable to completely hide, nor would I want to completely hide, my depression from them. I am a Time to Change Wales Champion and as such, I have pledged to do what I can to end the stigma of mental health conditions. This, in my opinion, means educating my children in an age appropriate manner as to why mummy and some of her friends are sadder than other people.

Using the word sad I know doesn’t cut it with depression, however as I said, I need to make my explanations age appropriate. My eldest son is 6 years old, my youngest is 2. I am also very aware that as my eldest is autistic, he is at higher risk of developing a comorbid mental health condition such as depression. It is therefore even more important that I don’t hide this from him, that he understands that it’s okay and pretty “normal” to have a mental health condition.

I know there will be people who disagree with me being open with them regarding this, who think that children should be protected and sheltered from the “bad things” in life. The problem with that is it further stigmatises mental health conditions. If I had to take tablets every morning for diabetes rather than depression, would the naysayers hold the same opinion? I also have coeliac disease, nobody bats an eyelid if I explain to my children that mummy can’t eat gluten because it makes her tummy poorly.

The fact that I provide my children with explanations for things rather than adopting the frankly unhelpful but more usual “because I say so” is fairly alien to many people anyway. It’s also imperative that I do as my eldest needs to know why things are, how things are and when things will be. If he doesn’t know these things or if I’m too vague, he either panics (as shown in behaviours such as repetitive questioning and chewing inedible objects); has a meltdown or completely shuts off from what you are saying. This method of approaching daily life, together with not hiding depression came together beautifully this afternoon.

I was due to go to a friend’s house for a coffee and a catch up. She, like many others, suffers from depression. When I messaged her to see if it was still okay to come over her response was that while she technically wanted company, she just couldn’t face seeing anyone. This is both completely fair and reasonable and also very relatable.

When I told my eldest that our plans had changed, initially I just said that my friend doesn’t feel very well. This was too vague and he needed to know why she wasn’t well and also why that meant our plans had changed. My explanation was simple, his understanding complete:

Me: You know how mummy gets really sad sometimes and has something called depression?

Him: Yes

Me: Well, mummy’s friend also has depression and today she is feeling very sad and would rather be by herself.

Him: Like daddy gets sad?

Me: Not quite. Daddy does get sad but he doesn’t have depression, just like you get sad but don’t have depression. Mummy and some of her friends get sadder than that and sometimes find things that are normally easy really hard. This is why mummy’s friend wants to be on her own today and is why mummy gets very tired and sometimes doesn’t wash the dishes as much as she should.

Him: Oh, okay. <He gets on with his day>

In my opinion there is nothing inappropriate in that conversation, nor is there anything which could scare or worry him. He has accepted the change in plans, has learned a little about depression and knows that it happens to quite a few people he knows. However I am just one person. If more parents adopted this approach, if depression was talked about in schools in the same way bullying, sexual transmitted infections and eating disorders are, perhaps the next generation will have completely stamped out mental health stigma. While I realise that’s an idealist’s dream, I can’t see how it would do anything other than help.

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