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Discussing mental illness

DID YOU know that 10 per cent of population has mental illnesses? About 10 per cent of this 10 per cent have severe mental illnesses. And 10 per cent of the severe cases need hospitalisation. That makes for a lot of people in our country having illnesses of the mind. It is only natural that children encounter such people and like to know why they behave strangely. Several parents would bypass their questions or feel embarrassed to answer.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2006 01:18 IST
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DID YOU know that 10 per cent of population has mental illnesses? About 10 per cent of this 10 per cent have severe mental illnesses. And 10 per cent of the severe cases need hospitalisation.

That makes for a lot of people in our country having illnesses of the mind. It is only natural that children encounter such people and like to know why they behave strangely. Several parents would bypass their questions or feel embarrassed to answer.

Children are naturally curious and have questions about mental illnesses. Understanding mental illnesses can be challenging for adults as well as for children. Myths, confusion, and misinformation about mental illnesses cause anxiety, create stereotypes, and continue stigma. During the past 50 years, great advances have been made in the areas of diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses.

Parents can help children understand that these are real illnesses that can be treated. In order for parents to talk with a child about mental illnesses, they must be knowledgeable and reasonably comfortable with the subject.

Some parents may have to do a little homework to be better informed. Parents should have a basic understanding and answers to questions such as, what are mental illnesses, who gets them, what causes them, how are diagnoses made, and what treatments are available.

When explaining to a child about how mental illnesses affect a person, it may be helpful to make a comparison to a physical illness. For example, many people get sick with a cold or the flu, but only a few get really sick with something serious like pneumonia. People who have a cold are usually able to do their normal activities. However, if they get pneumonia, they will have to take medicine and may have to go to the hospital.

Similarly, feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry, irritability, or sleep problems are common for most people. However, when these feelings get very intense, last for a long period of time, and begin to interfere with school, work, and relationships, it may be a sign of a mental illness.

How to communicate
When talking about mental illnesses, parents should:

1communicate in a straightforward manner

2communicate at a level that is appropriate to a child’s age and development level

3have the discussion when the child feels safe and comfortable

4watch their child’s reaction during the discussion

5slow down or back up if the child becomes confused or looks upset

Considering these points will help any child to be more relaxed and understand more of the conversation. Communicating with pre-school children Young children need less information and fewer details because of their more limited ability to understand.

Preschool children focus primarily on things they can see, for example, they may have questions about a person who has an unusual physical appearance, or is behaving strangely. They would also be very aware of people who are crying and obviously sad, or yelling and angry.

Communicating with school children
Older children may want more specifics. They may ask more questions, especially about friends or family with emotional or behavioral problems. Their concerns and questions are usually very straightforward. ‘Why is that person crying?’ ‘Why is that person talking to herself?’ They may worry about their safety or the safety of their family and friends. It is important to answer their questions directly and honestly and to reassure them about their concerns and feelings.

Communicating with teenagers
Teenagers are generally capable of handling much more information and asking more specific and difficult questions. Teenagers often talk more openly with their friends and peers than with their parents. As a result, some teens may already have misinformation about mental illnesses. Teenagers respond more positively to an open dialogue that includes give and take.

They are not as open or responsive when a conversation feels one-sided or like a lecture. The range of human behavior is very large. ‘Normal’ is not a narrow range. In any case, there are lot of transient psychological problems that all of us have to sort out for ourselves.

Our children would also be required to do the same. Talking to children about mental illnesses can be an opportunity for parents to provide their children with information, support, and guidance. Learning about mental illnesses can lead to improved recognition, earlier treatment, greater understanding and compassion, as well as decreased stigma. ( The author is a psychologist and a professor of psychology at BSSS. He can be contacted at drvinaymishra@rediffmail.com)

First Published: Mar 08, 2006 01:18 IST