mental health

How to talk to your child about mental health

I’ve got one of those good news-bad news scenarios to share.

The good news: there is hope that the pandemic will end soon with a vaccine now available.

The bad news: the pandemic has produced a second wave casualty–the silent and invisible plague of mental health issues.

There isn’t a quick and easy vaccine for this kind of illness. People around the world have suffered jobs loss, loss of friendship and celebrations, lost opportunities, uncertainty about the most basics of everyday living, anxiety about the future, and feelings of frustration vented onto family members crowded together in chaotic living arrangements.

The cumulative effect of stress suppressed in the body can turn into feelings of chronic depression or anxiety.

Wearing masks have shielded us from the virus. But what about the other masks we wear? The ones that lie and tell everyone that we are “doing fine” and “hanging in there” but hide the real emotion. We mask what is going on behind closed doors. According to the CDC, the social effects of the coronavirus has been associated with increased mental health challenges and anxiety and depression reports have risen during the past year. Forbes magazine also reports increased stress due to Covid-19 and a reluctance for adults to talk about how that stress affects their mental state.

So this leads me to the important question. What does a parent do when he or she is battling mental illness brought on by this pandemic, or from any other reason? How do you talk to your child if you are experiencing depression? Kids have it tough enough without having to worry about their parent.

Now’s the time to open up, take off the mask of shame, fear, guilt, doubt, and denial. Let’s replace it with safety, connection, vulnerability (which is an act of courage), honesty, and hope. Now’s the time to talk openly about mental illness.

One of the best ways to talk about difficult subjects with kids is through children’s literature…”bibliotherapy” so to speak. You learn about how other people are suffering and experiencing a wide range of emotions through fictional or nonfictional stories. It’s an indirect way to broach the topic which for many, makes it easier. Reading these books aloud with your kids will make it “safe” to talk about since it’s in a storybook format with captivating pictures.

Then, as you read each page, you can open up and talk about how you feel similar to the character in the book. Ask your child if they notice when you are in a depressed state and how it affects them. It also sparks questions such as, “Is depression contagious,” “What are my triggers?” and that it is a normal thing we are going through. The books also give ways the main character gets help from others and learns to cope, which you can discuss with your child. What a relief that will feel! No one is powerless; there is always help. Talk to them about how you are getting help (or plan to) and learning how to manage. These books can be read again and again to help your kids process their situation. Each time, you can ask different questions that are sparked from the story.

The following list are for the topic of depression. There is an equally wonderful selection of books on other topics related to mental health.

Can I Catch It Like a Cold? Coping With a Parent’s Depression
Written by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, illustrated by Joe Weissmann

Synopsis: Alex’s dad doesn’t work anymore and just wants to sleep all the time. When Alex finds out why — that he’s suffering from depression — he confides in his friend Anna. She tells him that her mom has depression too, and she sees a therapist to help her feel better. “I like that it promotes the benefits of therapy for the entire family,” says an expert at the Child Mind Institute. Ages 7-12. Published by Tundra Books.

Although this next story is about PTSD, a parent suffering from depression may identify that their depression is triggered by past experiences, smells, sights, etc. like the girl in this story. They could read it and talk about how he/she feels similarly anxious and depressed by life’s challenges.

The War That Saved My Life
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Synopsis: During World War II, 10-year-old Ava escapes her traumatic life with her mom and goes to the countryside, where she learns to ride a pony and read. But in the country she is still struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder; for instance, going into a bomb shelter reminds her of being locked in a kitchen cabinet in her mom’s apartment. Because of some mature language and themes, it’s better read with your child. Ages 9-12. Published by Puffin Books.

Here are four more books that are sensitively illustrated and written. Choose what targets your child’s age and appropriate developmental understanding.

Meh by Deborah Malcolm (depression) (for children ages 6-10)
(https://www.amazon.com/Meh-Story-Depression-Deborah-Malcolm/dp/163411003X)

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen (for ages 6-pre-teens)
(https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Rosens-Boston-Globe-Horn-Honors/dp/0763625973)

The Princess and the Fog by Lloyd Jones (depression) (for ages 5-7)
(https://www.amazon.com/Princess-Fog-Story-Children-Depression/dp/1849056552

Why Are You So Sad: A Child’s Book about Parental Depression (Kindergarten to Grade 3)
by Andrews, Beth, and Wong, Nicole

Now, another good resource to open up discussion with your children is short videos. This one has great animation, information, and very helpful for children. I’d suggest watching it first, then viewing it with your kids and talking about the message. It’s terrific!

Finally, this video talks about signs of depression that would be great for older kids and teens. Not only to talk about how they see your signs, but also to become aware of their own mental health as well as their friends.

Let’s mask up for the virus but unmask when talking about mental health. It’s one less thing that doesn’t have to become a casualty of our current health crisis.

10 tips to non-medicated sleep (and not counting sheep)

If anyone is not feeling stressed right now, please raise your hand.

I didn’t think so.

This COVID-19 pandemic, earthquakes, economic downturn, social isolation, being home 24/7, trying to educate stir-crazy kids, constantly sanitizing and cleaning every surface and anything that moves, (and the list goes on), is wrecking havoc on our health. Mental, physical, social, and emotional health is taking a nose dive.

Some of the common symptoms in this uncommon time are irritability, lack of motivation, fear, frustration, anger, hopelessness, and insomnia. Lack of sleep just exacerbates all the others. I’ve had insomnia off and on my whole life, thanks to genetics and an overactive mind. Every time I lay down my head on pillow and try to fall asleep, thoughts pour into my head like a flowing faucet. Literally a river of thoughts that won’t turn off. I’ve tried counting sheep, but that doesn’t work.

Once I took a vacation to Puerto Rico and did not sleep for 5 days. And that was on vacation when I should have been the most relaxed!

However, during this pandemic, I have slept incredibly well. That’s because I have learned how to fall asleep without drugs or counting sheep. On rare occasions, I’ve taken a Tylenol P.M. or Melatonin, and it’s been years since I’ve taken Ambien. I’m handling the current situation better because I get a full-night’s sleep. I know there are some who need to take sleep medication, but for those who want to explore other options, I’d like to share 10 tips with you. I start with the most obvious, small ideas and work up to the most powerful, big ones.

Number 10. 

processed-junk-food

Eliminate any food and drink after 8:00 p.m. or earlier, if possible. No caffeinated drinks in the evening. Avoid drinking water right before bedtime so you don’t have to get up to go to the bathroom.

Number 9.

nap

No naps. Keep a regular daily schedule as much as possible. Sleep, or circadian rhythms, is your body’s patterns of knowing day from night. If you take a nap longer than 30 minutes, you disrupt that pattern by going too deep into sleep during daytime hours. If you must take a power nap, make it 5-10 minutes.

Number 8.

Mature African-American women in city, exercising

Regular exercise. Even with the COVID-19, we are (especially ) encouraged to get outside, drink in some Vitamin D, and move our bodies. This is true All. The. Time. not just during a pandemic. With gyms closed for the time being, you’ll have to get creative and more determined. Every day I try to do some gardening, exercise on the stationary bike, or walk for 30 minutes around the neighborhood.

Number 7.

phoneNight-

Do not take a device to bed with you or watch TV in the bedroom. If you have trouble like I do, it could be that you are inputting to much information for your brain to process. My mind is like 101 computer tabs open, holding me hostage. Use the few hours before bedtime to NOT watch a movie or scroll through social media, watch the news, or anything that would open another tab to deal with. There’s a lot of science that cautions us to not have the light from screens tricking our eyes to thinking it’s daytime.

Number 6.

Young woman practicing yoga, touching toes in apartment

Relax and stretch muscles. You can have a body massage if you’re lucky enough to have someone to do that for you every night. If not, I’d suggest taking a hot bath, a long hot shower, and stretching. Yes, that’s right, I said “stretching.” There are amazing benefits to stretching out our muscles. You may be doing this before or after a workout which is great! If you do it before bedtime, you’ll find that stretching out releases endorphins, a great “feel good” chemical to your brain. Static stretching increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation. I can literally feel my body relaxing while I stretch. And when I wake up, I feel So. Good.

Number 5.

App-Store

Meditation apps. This tip is becoming rather popular now, with the Mindfulness Movement. I love that we are using our powerful minds to harness energy and direct it for good. Another similar idea is to have white noise to help soothe the mind.

Number 4.

191011_Gravity_Original_grey_1000x

Insomnia is a by-product of anxiety for many people. Many people with anxiety and sleep disorders swear by weighted blankets. This may be the cure for you. Weighted blankets are filled with small objects like glass beads or metal pellets to make it heavy. The feeling of having something holding or hugging you close, like a blanket, is very calming. Research shows that weighted blankets are used in therapy known as “deep touch pressure stimulation” which aids in the production of sleep-help hormones

Number 3.

recorderYears ago, before cellphones, I was working full time in a very demanding job. My boss taught me a great trick to clear the mind at bedtime. She had a hand-held voice recorder with mini-cassette tapes inside. She kept it on her nightstand and when her faucet-thoughts started flowing, she reached for her recorder, and put those ideas on the tape. Once she could clear her mind by having something else keep her thoughts organized and safe, she could fall asleep. Today, we can use any app or “voice memo” or reminder on a cellphone. Some people prefer to get up and journal or write down their thoughts to have the paper remember it for them. Whatever you need, use it. 

Number 2.

breathing

Deep breathing. This has been a game changer for me. It came out of guided meditation practices. I don’t normally go through guided meditation these days, but I do the breathing that is so essential to relaxation. Like stretching (#6), deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and the supply of oxygen to your brain. Rather than counting sheep, I lay in bed and do the slow breathing in, counting 1-10, then hold, and release like slowing blowing through a straw, 1-5. Doing this helps me re-center, and focus on the breath. If my mind begins wandering, I bring it back to the breath. I don’t judge my wandering thoughts, or dwell on them, but gently guide them back with the breath. If you concentrate on this exercise, you will probably find, like me, that you have fallen asleep without even realizing it. It literally wears you out.

Drum roll….Number 1.

cartoon friends high fiving

Make friends with insomnia. This is something I discovered on my own, but it’s backed up by research. I had been fighting my insomnia like it was an enemy I took to bed each night. I wrestled with it, coaxed it, bribed it, bargained with it, resented it, and felt powerless by it. Insomnia was like a living presence that had control of me. I decided that the energy it took to fight it and the resentment I felt because of it was part of the problem. I decided that I needed to take back control. So I made friends with it. I didn’t judge it or myself anymore. Quite a few nights, I just lay there, at peace. I was in state of total relaxation all night and I didn’t let that upset me. The goal wasn’t to “get to sleep” anymore. I just enjoyed resting. I enjoyed the quiet. I began thinking of my blessings. I filled my mind with gratitude, and for the chance to spend just laying there. I welcomed it. When I did that, it changed my life. No longer did I feel a victim to insomnia. I fact, I never acknowledge I had insomnia anymore. Instead, I have a chance to lay in bed filled with gratitude.

These are the secret tips of a lifetime of trial and error. I feel compelled today to share them in the hopes it might help someone else who struggles with sleep disorder. Life is hard enough without being tired of the fight to sleep. I wish you all the best in your quest for rest.

Good luck, and good night.