Childrens mental health

How to talk to kids about mental health

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Answering the “What do you do at work, Daddy?” question can seem a little more complicated for someone in my occupation, or at least it has seemed that way in my head.

“I talk to people” I would say. “About what?” comes the inevitable reply.

Recently, a friend and colleague gave me the useful phrase “I’m a Feelings Doctor” and that seemed to fit, at least for a while.

But in talking with my local school and their year eight Student Council about how to best present the idea of Gumboot Friday (a fundraising drive for mental health support) to younger primary school children, it suddenly seemed easier.

Of course, it’s worth being thoughtful about these things, and I’m glad this stellar group of young people were thinking it through so carefully. But it made me think about – even after doing my job for 20 years – my own internalised stigma.

It was stigma that made me feel like I had to cushion, or be careful about how I talked to my own children about mental health.

That’s the thing about stigma, it’s hard to spot.

So I told them to say, sometimes people need someone to talk to, especially if they’re upset. If they can’t find someone then Gumboot Friday will pay for a counsellor.

Simple really.

We don’t have to be more careful with young people and children, or try to protect them from the truth. Because to do so is to signal to them there’s something to be ashamed of, something to be protected from. That’s how stigma takes hold.

When really, we’re only talking about feelings, albeit painful feelings, and the deeply normal human need to talk to someone when we feel upset.

In part that’s why I’ve also given up on the “Feelings Doctor” explanation because it implies an illness that needs special attention. In fact, we should be trying to normalise the process of talking things through whenever we need to. And when better than to do this from a young age, before stigma, judgement and shame takes hold.

So yes, children, teenagers, their teachers and parents wearing Gumboots this Friday is a fun way to raise money and awareness about mental health. But it’s also a great way to start a conversation – one that shouldn’t be scary – with the little people in your life.

Hopefully, that’s a conversation that will last a lifetime.

Disclaimer: Kyle is a trustee on the Key to Life Charitable Trust, the charity behind Mike King, the “I am Hope” and Gumboot Friday campaigns.

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