Explaining Mental Illness to Children

I was asked recently wow do you go about explaining mental health to children, especially if it is your own?

It will vary from child to child. The very young need simpler concepts, while the older ones can deal with greater detail. However here is approximately how I explained mental illness and health to my child when she was about 4 years old. I have changed it a bit with hind sight.


You know how there are tall people and short people, dark haired people and light haired people, dark eyed people and light eyed people? You know how some people are fat and some are skinny, and with all of those people are many other people fitting in between? That is because people are all different from each other. We can easily see those outside differences.

Even so, most people have hair, most people have two eyes and most people have the same number of limbs. For all our differences, we all work roughly the same way.

Some people have differences inside them, some are based on bits that are different – do you remember that your mother had her gallbladder taken out? You still have yours, as do I. One of my friends was born with an extra half kidney, which is rare, while some people are born with less bits. These are still physical differences.

Your mother and her father are terrible at following street directions and will often get lost, while you have seen me glance at a map and know where I am going. This is a difference in how we think. We all have difference in how we think, much like how people are different in their height – how tall and short they are. These differences are not physical, but can sometimes have physical reasons. Do you remember that party we went to and how Bobbie was acting all strange? That was because he drank something called alcohol, and that can mess with how your body and mind work for a short time (unless you use too much for too long, then it can become permanent!) Some things can make permanent changes, because they make a permanent damage.

You know how Niki’s family are all tall? That is because they all have inherited being tall. You get your dark eyes from me, and your blond hair from your grand mother. Jenni colours her hair with a chemical called hair dye and that is because she likes to have red hair rather than her brown.

So long as all of the differences are not interfering with us living our lives, no one really cares too much. Sometimes a difference can interfere with how we live our lives. Like that man we saw yesterday with only one leg – he needed to either use a wheel chair to get around (can you imagine trying to use stairs with that? That’s why he uses the elevator) or he needed a prosthetic like a pirate’s wooden leg so he can walk (it’s still hard to skip though). He uses these tools to help him live a more ‘normal’ life.

When our bodies have problems like that, we call it a disability. When our minds have problems like that, we call it mental illness. It’s often managed by making changes in our lives, like the man in the wheel chair avoiding stairs and using the elevator, or using a tool like medication, much like the man with the wooden leg (they are usually made of metal and plastic these days) and the wheel chair.

Sometimes these methods aren’t enough and we just have to put up with it being really awkward. That is why sometimes I have troubles creating stories to tell you, I’m using all my effort to hold my mind together so I do the things I need to do and some of the things that can wait just have to wait until I can concentrate better. At those times, I’m very grateful that you can tell me stories instead. My mind, that is my thoughts, can be doing very strange and unhelpful things in those times. I can be very angry for no reason, or really tired when I shouldn’t be, I can be too happy, or I can start thinking very strange and weird thoughts. At those times I need to recognise that I’m thinking strangely and decide to act normal anyway, because you need it, my life needs it, and your mother needs it.

You know that thing you did at school where you wore a blind fold and had someone tell you where to step and which way to turn and you had to find the items around the school? That was a good introduction to some of the challenges of being blind. Imagine if the person telling you which way to go didn’t like you, or didn’t care about the task, or you had a bunch of them yelling at you all at once. Sometimes that is what it is like in my head. I can’t trust what I am feeling, or sometimes what I am thinking, so I have to consider everything that I do very carefully. That can be very tiring and slow me down, or make it impossible to make decisions. At those times, I put off the big decisions and rely on habit – this is what I did before.

For me there is no handy tool to manage this situation, there is just avoiding the problem and holding on until it goes away. Fortunately it always goes away. It doesn’t for all people. This is like the man with only one leg choosing to take the lift instead of the stairs, or deciding that going up that extra floor wasn’t really needed right now. It can mean going without a few things, but it’s better than having nothing.

Other people experience different things, like hearing voices of people that aren’t there, seeing things that no one else does, or finding it really hard to get out of bed for days – not just the morning! Just like there being lots of differences in what people look like, there are lots of ways we can think, and many ways that it can go wrong for lots of reasons. But only when those difference cause a problem do we need to do something about it. The problem is called mental illness, the solution (the thing we do about it) is called mental health. While it is important to understand what is going wrong, it is just as important to work out how to manage it so our lives work out all right. Many people forget that second part.

I think that some of what is going on in my head is because of what I grew up experiencing, and some of it also comes from my family (like the tall family). Our experiences shape us. You know how Katie does gymnastics, and how she can do all of those flips and bend her limbs in interesting ways? She couldn’t do that if she didn’t do gymnastics. Her life experience has lead to a good thing for her. Some of our life experiences lead to bad things. That is how that man lost his leg, he was in a fight called war. In that fight his leg got very badly damaged and he lost it to save his life. Sometimes the damage is not just outside our bodies. For me, some of the damage was in my mind.

Do you remember when you fell and hurt your ear? The doctors were able to fix it up and now you just have a scar. Some of what is going on in my mind is the hurt that is healing, some of it is the scar of what is left. Most of my mind works great though. I believe that if I keep practising, like Katie, I will get a more flexible mind and I can heal the hurt better.

And I did. It took 10 years of effort to heal. I still sometimes get problems, but it is so rare now that they are mere blips on my otherwise sunny life. Each time I blip, I just think “oh, this. I know what to do.”