When I kissed my daughter goodnight on Sunday, I reminded her that I wouldn’t see her on Monday morning. “I know, Mom. You’re going to see Dr. J.”
At seven, my daughter has a firm handle on my therapy schedule and does not need to be reminded that on Monday mornings I leave before she wakes up because I have a standing therapy appointment. She’s unfazed. To her, it’s not any different than a dentist appointment. And that’s exactly how I want it: Mom sees a therapist—it’s no big deal.
Both she and my 5-year-old son know that I see a therapist every week. When they were younger, I just said I was going to see Dr. J, but a year ago they began to ask questions about who Dr. J was and why I had to go to the doctor every week. No doubt they were picturing a doctor like their pediatrician who pokes and prods their bodies and has an annoying habit of giving them shots.
Initially, I told them I talk to Dr. J about what’s going on in my life so I can get support and not feel alone. They wanted to know if I had to go—the same way they have to go to the pediatrician—and I told them that it was my choice.
“It helps me be a better mom.”
“How?” they wanted to know.
I was so glad they asked. It gave me a chance to tell them that parents don’t have all the answers and that we need help too. Just like we're always telling them to ask for help when they have a problem or when they feel overwhelmed, I wanted them to know that I do the same thing.
"Dr. J helps me think through my problems, offers guidance, and helps me see my choices." I want my children to know that I don’t run my life all by myself. I remember thinking my parents had everything figured out and adults didn’t need anything but themselves. That’s a myth I hope to shatter.
Their genetics may nudge them toward dark paths, but my openness about therapy and mental wellness may keep them from falling too far.
Letting my kids know about my therapy is also one way to reduce the stimga surrounding mental illness. It has to start at home. My kids know that therapy is part of my week and has been since before they were born. I don’t hide it from them because it would be like hiding a fundamental part of myself. While they don’t need to know my diagnoses or the gritty details from the sessions, there's no reason to hide the fact of my therapy, because it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of having a rich, full life—like having an OB/GYN or a Costco membership.
In 1999 the U.S. Surgeon General named stimga as the biggest barrier to mental health care—and those negative attitudes are still around today. Increased awareness is cited as the most important thing that can be done to counteract stereotypes of people with mental illnesses as people who are crazy, dangerous, or weird. And I have to do my part by educating my kids.
If there ever comes a day when they face their own mental health challenges, they'll hopefully be more likely to reach out to me knowing that I've been a huge proponent of therapy for years. Because therapy is a tool in our family toolbox, they won’t have to grit their teeth through a break up or crippling anxiety or an eating disorder. They'll know they can ask for help—professional help.
Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Health show that 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 received mental health services in the previous year. My kids, even if they never avail themselves of mental health treatment, will be allies to their peers who are seeking treatment.
When they get older, I'll reveal even more about my own mental health and that of our family. I'll let them know that there's alcoholism, addiction, anxiety, eating disorders, and depression in our family tree. I'll give them the nitty gritty details just like I'll one day tell them about the breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.
My hope is that if they find themselves struggling with any of these conditions, they'll be willing to seek out treatment in the early stages of distress. Their genetics may nudge them toward dark paths, but my openness about therapy and mental wellness may keep them from falling too far.