For one day each term, I let my kids stay home from school, without a stomach-ache, headache, sore throat, or broken bone. We call it a Mental Health Day.
Because our weekends, like yours, are no quieter than the average school day, it’s an opportunity for some much needed space, some rest.
Clearly it’s something we should all be thinking about. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of 14- to 18-year-olds in the U.S. live with a mental health condition. Suicide is the second most common reason for the death of 15- to 24-year-olds.
In the UK, the picture is no brighter: According to Young Minds, a UK mental health charity, 26 percent of young people experience suicidal thoughts.
Even for a non-scientist like me, epidemic is surely the word.
My younger son’s turn was yesterday, and on the way home from dropping his brother at school, he told everyone he met. “I’m on a mental health day!”
The grown-ups were, without exception, horrified, yet quietly so – this is an affluent, tactful community. But horrified nonetheless.
“I shouldn’t let him call it that, should I?” I joked, trying to reflect normality to yet another shocked-but-trying-not-to-look-shocked parent. As we walked home to a day of special snacks and (sorry, son) food shopping, I said to my boy:
“Let’s just keep Mental Health Day to ourselves, okay? Maybe don’t call it that at school.”
I tend towards an anxious-parent, and regularly overthink things. Why I was doing this? Why I hadn’t told the school Tim was having a mental health day? Would it actually be better to get Tim to own it? What’s so wrong with a mental health day anyway?
But it’s teenagers who suffer, I hear you say. Your kids are what, six and eight? Yes, now they are six and eight. One day soon, they’ll be teenagers.
I’m not waiting until after they tell me their suicidal thoughts before I teach them how to look after their mental health, any more than I’ll wait until after they’ve had sex before I teach them about contraception.
Admittedly, this parenting, my parenting – like everyone else’s – comes from my experience. At 18, I was convinced that there were hidden cameras in the hospital I had been admitted to for my own safety.
After a diagnosis of "temporary psychosis" (times two), a very understanding employer and a supportive family allowed me to re-enter society gradually and completely. But as I stepped out of the hospital for the second time, I swore to myself that I would be an “ambassador for mental health awareness,” not unlike the main character in my first novel.
So I talk about it, not to everyone I meet, but to most of them. I look after myself. The peaks, as well as the troughs, are monitored.
I can look at my calendar and know that I have too much to do this week. When this happens, I will set about cancelling, minimizing my commitments.
I live a curtailed life, a tiny life. I wouldn’t voluntarily emigrate. I need the support network I have meticulously built around myself and my family. I also have meds I can take on a day that I think may become challenging.
My children are more likely than average to suffer from emotional difficulties in their lives – and remember the average is already one in five. The shared gene pool is not great. After asking for a brief family history, a doctor informed me airily that I “probably” had bipolar spectrum disorder, something I can presumably pass on to my precious babies.
At some point, children become teenagers. When do you start talking to them about mental health?
As a parent, I will do everything I can to protect my boys. This includes telling them about my history, when the time is right, in the right amount of detail.
It includes encouraging them to talk about their feelings, not despite their gender, but because of it. Other people are unlikely to encourage them to open up as they go through life. What’s that lyric? Big boys don’t cry?
And yes, dammit, it includes offering them both the concept, and the reality of a mental health day. Maybe when they grow up, one or the other of them will give themselves permission to take one.
And maybe it will save their life.