Dear Sarah: Talking About Mental Illness
I spent much of my early childhood living with a parent with mental illness. My father, who died by suicide when I was eight years old, struggled with bipolar illness for all of his adult life. I have very few memories of that time before my father died. Now, I have an eight year old daughter myself and during a recent visit with my mother we started looking at old baby pictures of mine. My daughter has started to ask questions about what happened to Zayde Bernie and I don’t know how or where to start talking to her about something that I did not come to understand until I was an adult. I feel like we need to start having this conversation because my family history of mental illness is also her family history. However, I want the conversation to be age appropriate.
Dear Painfully Parenting,
For an 8 year-old, I would focus on the basic fact that Zayde Bernie died, that he is missed by his family, and that he will always be with them in their hearts. You should share your memories of him (as should your own mother) and depending on what your daughter asks, you can talk about mental illness. I would not, at this time, talk to her about depression or suicide. This is a topic for an older teenager, when and if the teen or someone they love is struggling with depression, or the teen starts to ask questions about suicide. You’ve made a good start by looking at pictures with your daughter. Now is the time to let her ask the questions and share what you do remember of your father.
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