Breaking the Silence about Kids and Mental Illness 

Just today I gently reminded my young son that one of the most important jobs I have is to help him grow. That is why, I explain, as parents we pay attention to caring for his whole body as he grows, including his brain and his mental health. There’s a lot of talk about helping our kids succeed in life. But what we are talking less about is how to support our children’s mental health so that they will have the mental resiliencey to flourish. 

I admit that the main reason mental health is on my radar as a parent to a young child is because we know he is at an increased risk for developing a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and bipolar disorder because both sides of the family have experience with a diagnosis. So we feel morally responsible for taking protective and proactive measures. Given that twenty percent of Americans experience a diagnosed mental illness, it appears that my family is not alone in navigating raising a child who is at increased risk.

When it comes to good brain hygiene or mental health basics, in addition to enough sleep and healthy foods, for us as a family three areas of intentional management with our child are key: quality relationships, regular exposure to the outdoors and nature, and limited exposure to addictive electronic games. We make family dinner and conversation a daily ritual, strengthening our emotional connections and bonds. We choose opportunities for education and recreation that regularly expose our child to the healing and renewing properties of nature. We talk to our child about the importance of setting limits on screen time and we closely monitor exposure to addictive digital games.

All of this is very intentional and we don’t know for sure it will work in the end. I’ve been following research that tracks the correlation between positive mental health and close family bonds, time in nature, and less time plugged into electronics. What I can tell you is that so far setting our focus as a family in these three areas of relationships, outdoors and nature and limits on electronics has helped to guide us on a path that feels life-giving. We don’t always meet our own expectations. Sometimes we solo off and eat snacks instead of a meal. Sometimes we stay inside on a beautiful day. Sometimes we let the usage of electronics go unchecked. But when these things happen, it doesn’t feel good. Instead, it feels very good when we honor our family sabbath on Sunday, electronic free day, and go to church, have a picnic outside and go for a walk in the woods.

Maybe what we are stumbling into is some sort of brain diet for kids. Or to say it another way, mental health hygiene for families with children. As I’ve come to embrace my family of origin’s own mental health history, sharing my stories in my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family and church, I find myself thinking more about the future and less about the past. What I’ve learned is that sometimes severe mental illness can be prevented. This is a great desire growing within me and an audacious dream that I have: to some day prevent severe mental illness in children. 

I believe that since we know so much more now about mental health, that we have a great opportunity to take what we have learned and apply this knowledge to help future generations so that there is less stigma and less suffering related to mental illness and more acceptance and compassion. When I talk to my son about how much we care for him, including his brain, I think he gets it. He wants to grow big and strong, so now he knows that includes his mental health, too. 

For the Love of Brains

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 4 is declared by the White House as National Mental Health Awareness Day. Let’s just come out and say it: brains. I have a seven year old son and so it’s  hard for me to say this word without hearing the zombie character from the 2012 film ParaNorman gurgling, “braaaaaaanes!” In the past year I have come to embrace the fact that mental health is the same as brain health, accepting  that mental illness is just as much a physical issue as heart disease and diabetes. 

Even as common as mental illness is in the US (one out of every four) still the stigma that we encounter related to mental illness is real and prevents people from getting help. Stigma can be deadly. 

I wonder if some of the stigma would decrease if we made an intentional shift in the way we think and talk about mental health and mental illness by focusing on its physical nature. By focusing on the brain, we focus in on the key area of the body where the illness originates. As we learn more through research about the physical nature of mental illness, and what is actually happening in the brain, we realize that people who have depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder have what is most often an “invisible disease” of the brain.

Now brain scans show us what depression looks like and we can see how the brain is impacted by different forms of brain disorders, diseases and illness. I believe that normalizing the spectrum of brain status is where we are headed in the future if we are serious about erasing stigma and saving lives. Everyone has a brain and each brain is different. 

Getting to a place of inclusion for each person, regardless of brain status, is not going to happen overnight. Yet it begins with honest and open conversations, sharing about personal experiences with our own brain, sharing our brain status.

What if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental health as we could about our physical health? Said differently, what if we could talk as easily and openly about our mental illness as we could about our physical illness? Aren’t they the same thing? My brain fitness depends not only on enough sleep, healthy diet and exercise, but also working with a skilled therapist, spiritual practices such as prayer, and time spent relaxing, all on a regular basis. My brain status today is improving, thanks to professional mental health care and intentional self-care. 

What if there was a useful tool, like Fitbit, but for the brain, that could help motivate us all to integrate daily practices of brain health into our lives by measuring our level of activity engaging in therapy, sleep, prescribed medications, and stress relieving activities…Brainfit, anyone? We need more ways to encourage people to take care of and love their brains (and not in a zombie way). We talk about loving our bodies, so why not talk about how to better love our brains.

As I talk with people across the country about mental illness and my book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the silence about mental illness, family and faith, one thing I know for sure: even though we have come a long way in breaking the silence about mental illness, we are still too often reluctant and afraid to talk about it. I’m hopeful that conversations will continue to happen more and more because we need places where people can be educated, encouraged and embraced for who they are, regardless of brain status. 

So, for the love of brains, see a therapist, connect to a friend, take your meds if they help your brain, hold onto hope and share with someone your brain status. We’ve all got brains and they are all beautiful. 

The President’s Brain

I don’t know if Presidents, like clergy, are required to undergo psychological testing in order to be deemed fit to serve. Mental health advocate Patrick Kennedy argues that those elected into the highest level of public service should routinely have a “check up from the neck up.” The job is stressful. The President, in order to best serve this nation, needs support from mental health professionals. 

I say the same thing about clergy. Anyone who is in a position of authority and service needs to be in good mental health. The pressures of the job and constant need to respond to crisis after crisis impacts our brains, making good mental hygiene critical. 

If the President has a mental health challenge, then I hope he gets the best care possible as soon as possible. The odds are good that he currently or at some point will suffer from a form of mental illness. One in five Americans will in any given year. Why not the President? I have compassion for anyone who is experiencing the pain of mental illness, in all its various forms.

I understand why people are calling the President crazy. It’s a way for people to explain his behaviors and the rhetoric. 

But here is the danger: it’s like jumping to blame a mass shooter’s actions on mental illness. We don’t want to look at the complex web of causation. We want a simple answer: he’s nuts.

The thing is, in the history of this nation, it is not always a matter of sanity or insanity that influences which side of history you are on. Were those fighting to preserve the institution of slavery insane? Were the confederate soldiers all mentally ill? Sure, some were. But most of them were faithfully living out an ideology, cultural norms and values passed along to them generation after generation. 

I want our President to get a mental health screening and to share the results with the American public. Then we can put to rest the question of whether or not his Presidency is impacted by mental illness.  People who live with brain diseases are capable of great things; even being President.

Stop calling the man nuts. It’s an insult to people with authentic mental illness. We might be a little difficult sometimes, but we don’t go around violating people’s human rights. That is something else entirely, and you can’t take little pills to treat it.