I was five years old when my parents first took me to see a child psychologist. I had stopped sleeping properly and had become anxious and isolated over several months. I don’t recall much about those sessions, but I do remembermy awkwardness around them, particularly surrounding my dad.
Fast-forward a few years and I became seriously unwell at university. Before my 21st birthday, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Again, I found it incredibly tough to open up to my dad.
Eventually, however, we began to discuss it. Our conversations always took place in the car, usually as we were driving to and from my psychiatrist. The shame and embarrassment surrounding my mental illness slowly began to dissolve. Now, my dad and I speak openly and give talks on the subject of mental health. And we want to inspire other fathers and sons to have that conversation.
Today, more than ever, we must broach the topic of well-being with our children. So many of them have been adversely affected by the pandemic. From my work in schools with my mental health charity, Beyond, I’ve seen that too many young people are suffering in silence. We know that boys in particular bottle up their struggles. To help them talk, you need patience, and you need to give them plenty of reassurance. Phrases such as “Take your time” and “There’s no rush” tend to gently encourage them. When they start, it is crucial that they are met with the empathy of an active listener.
I often find myself wanting to interject and advise, but I’ve realised that just letting a young person talk, while I nod and “Mmm-hmm”, allows them to be honest. When they have finished speaking, I always thank them and once again reassure them that what they’re experiencing is common – and very human.
Sometimes, it takes time. What helped me most was my dad’s persistence. He would very lightly keep nudging me to be honest with him. He never once became frustrated or impatient at my hesitance. My mum played a significant role, too. She would read books on emotional health and leave them lying around the house. At first, I avoided these like the plague but, as time went on, I began to engage.
One memory that sticks in my mind is of the time my parents said, “Let’s make a plan together.” Mental illness can be such an isolating experience. Getting help from
a GP or counsellor can also be daunting, so it’ll be comforting for your child if you pledge to be there every step of the way. It’s also essential to give your child positive affirmations (such as, “You will feel like yourself again”), as and when they need it.
As well as trying to help me open up, my parents made sure that they were looking after their own well-being. You can only hope to care for your kids properly if you first take care of yourself. Today, my dad runs a fathers’ forum that offers support to other dads with children who are suffering.
The key thing to know is that many mental health problems in youngsters are temporary and will be resolved, even if it feels like you’re stuck within the grip of mental illness.
Please reach out to your children and encourage them to talk about their emotional health. A simple sign that you’re comfortable and happy to speak about their well-being could be the catalyst they need, either now or one day in the future. Do that and you’re doing a good job.
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