'Why I told my kids about my suicide attempt'
A mother-of-two and a child psychiatrist speak on why discussing your own mental health with your children is important to their well being too
Nothing really happens as planned in my life anyway. It tends to put me in [such] situations and my options are either shutting them [my children] up by saying, 'we'll talk about it later', but never getting down to it, lie about it, or just be honest," says Bengaluru-based journalist and writer Sandhya Menon. The 40-year-old mother-to-two—an 11-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter—tweeted in the first week of September that her son, spotted on her phone, while it was lying around, that she was to speak on a mental health panel. As her daughter also looked at the picture and the note next to it, she asked Menon, "You tried to kill yourself?"
"I decided to go with being direct. Of course, I was conflicted. 'Are they too young to have this conversation with?' I thought. In the end I decided to follow their questions and let them lead the conversation," says Menon.
Menon, who lives with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, says she first spoke to her children about it a few years ago. "A large part of mental ill health has to do with temper," she says, recalling an incident when she lost her cool at them. "They were at a stage where they were becoming responsible and doing some things for themselves that didn't need me to be around all the time. Once I saw them faffing around and that distressed me. I lost my temper and shouted. Then I pulled back and said, 'hey, there's a bit of ill health here and I am taking therapy and medication for it and I live with it'."
The conversation helped Menon explain to her children that she took the responsibility for the shouting and that it wasn't that they had done anything wrong.
This, feels Dr Zirak Marker, child and adolescent psychiatrist and advisor at Mpower, is an important reason why parents need to discuss their own mental health issues with their children, whatever be the age.
"It's the same example that I give when parents ask 'at what age should we give our child sex education?' My answer is 'from the time they start understanding the English language'."
Dr Zirak Marker
Dr Marker explains that often when a parent or a relative is depressed (or suffering from any other mental health condition) and therefore is not interacting much with their children, the child is confused and feels unwanted or unloved. "By discussing the condition, you are normalising conversations, and helping them understand and verbalise their own feelings, too."
On how her conversation with her kids about her suicide attempt proceeded, Menon says her children wanted to know the "nuts and bolts of it"—"why did you do it?", "did it happen before we were born or after". "They went quiet after a bit. Then they had specific questions, on how I felt physically when I did it and how I got better."
The conversation then expanded to famous people who had died by suicide and then the idea of seeking help. But, Menon didn't want to end the discussion there.
"Two-three days later, I had a conversation with them on what I learnt from my attempt. I had to have a follow-up conversation. I don't want them to think 'my mother did it. I am depressed so I can do it as well'," she says. "I told them that [when at the point of taking one's own life] it feels that it's the only [option] you have left, but there's a lot to learn and then I discussed
what I had learnt [in my mental health journey]."
But, how much should you disclose or what words should you use? Menon says it's important to understand what the child is asking. "When my children asked how did it feel, I wanted to talk about how it felt emotionally for me, but I realised that they were asking, how it felt physically. So, you take your cues from them."
Dr Marker says, using age-appropriate language may help the child comprehend the situation better. "For instance, a six-year-old won't understand neuro-transmitters, but a 15-year-old will. So, you need to find the right words." He says, he often encourages family therapy in situations where
the parent is suffering from a mental illness.
He speaks about a client's father—his patients are largely children—who suffers from depression and due to the work stress during the lockdown, started showing symptoms. "His sleep patterns were disturbed and he would get irritable and suffer from low moods and bouts of anger. His two sons, aged 12 and 14 reacted differently to this," says Dr Marker. While the 14-year-old shut down, the 12-year-old got overly attached to the mother and started getting nightmares, worried that his "ill" father may have COVID-19. Then, when he started bed-wetting, his parents brought him to the counsellor.
Speaking about the father, Dr Marker says, "He is a great dad. Through sessions, we focussed on strategies that would help build trust and rapport with his children. He is on medication and now has taken a sabbatical and the kids are also doing much better."
Both Dr Marker and Menon feel that discussing one's own condition with their children lays better groundwork for their own mental health. Dr Marker points out that if a child is being subjected to sexual abuse, or bullying in any form, they may be able to discuss this with their parents, if the parents have an open discussion about it.
Menon hopes that by sensitising her children to mental health, they will be able to offer support to friends or lean on each other if needed in future. "The second aspect is that if they ever go through the same situation and wonder what to do, they know they can turn to their mother. We hesitate to tell our parents a lot of things because we feel they have not been through the same situation. Knowing that there's someone who has had the same experience will help."
As Dr Marker says, there are no pitfalls to this. In fact, it might just bring more support into
Menon recalls an incident when she was in the shower and her children knocked on the door saying "we want to show you something". "Ten minutes later, I stepped out and found a piece of newspaper on my bed. It was torn out, not even cut properly. And it was a cartoon about five tips on what to do when you're depressed—stand in the sun, go for a walk, etc. They had spotted it and thought it would help me. It was sensitive of them."
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