As someone who has dealt with anxiety and panic disorder since I was a child—and who has been in and out of therapy since my teens—I would say that I’m a person who takes mental health seriously. To me, mental health is as essential as physical health, and that’s a message I hope I impart on my children.
We have always been a family who validates feelings, even the difficult ones. When my kids were younger and would have meltdowns, I would try to help them manage their feelings, but I would always make a point to make it clear that their feelings were real, and mattered. There was no “stop crying,” or any type of punishment for an emotional meltdown. Just a lot of “holding space” and allowing them to let it all out.
As my kids have gotten older, taking their mental health seriously means being a safe space for them to talk about feelings. Each of my kids comes to me with the “hard stuff” that they don’t share with most other people. We have times of day—usually at night—where they periodically open up to me, and share this or that problem or issue they are having.
Taking care of their mental health also means allowing them to take mental health days from school periodically. This isn’t “blowing off school.” For us, mental health days are conscious decisions to take a break for life to restore and rest. They are a chance to acknowledge when things have gotten to be too much, and an empowering way to do something about that.
I’m pretty sure that taking mental health days is how my son made it through middle school in one piece. For real.
I don’t want all of this to sound like I’m some kind of perfect parent when it comes to attending to my kids’ mental health. Far from it. I’m sure I’ve made a million mistakes. I know I’m short with my kids sometimes. I’m also sure one or both of my children have inherited my anxiety disorder, so that’s fun.
But I do have this basic attitude that mental health is something we prioritize in this house. Period.
I always knew this was generally a good thing, but it was only recently that I realized that making mental health a priority was especially important because of the fact that I’m raising boys—boys who will one day become men.
I was doing research about men and mental health when I came across some pretty alarming information. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, men are less likely to experience mental health struggles than women. However, they are also less likely to have sought help for a mental health problem in the past year than women.
As The Washington Post notes, these two pieces of information may be connected. Joseph Harper, writing for The Post, asks: “Are men truly experiencing fewer mental health problems, or are they more likely to ignore them and hope they go away?”
This is definitely an important question, and my hunch is that men actually are just as likely to experience mental health issues, but that the culture surrounding men and mental health means that they are less likely to seek help for their issues.
Think about it: if you’ve been told all your life to “man up” when you are upset, or that crying “makes you a sissy,” why would you feel comfortable sharing any difficult feelings you are having, or going to therapy?
Tragically, this reality may explain the next piece of alarming information I came across. The National Institute of Mental Health also explains that men are more likely to lose their life to suicide than women. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, the suicide rate among men is four times higher than among women.
FOUR. TIMES. It absolutely broke my heart when I heard that statistic.
All of this was definitely on my mind over the past few weeks as my younger son was dealing with some serious mental health issues. His re-entry back to school after being remote last year was seriously rough. He was having meltdowns about schoolwork and homework. Not only that, but he was saying stuff like, “I’m a bad person. I can’t accomplish anything. I hate myself.”
After talking to his school psychologist and talking it over with my husband, we decided to seek therapy for him. At first, I was concerned that he might not feel comfortable with it. But that has not been the case at all. Basically, his attitude has been, “Another safe person to talk to about my feelings? I’ll take it!”
My son is still struggling with these difficult feelings, but the idea of tackling them in therapy was a no-brainer for him. The fact that the idea of therapy made sense to him, and that he viewed it as a totally normal thing a struggling child would do, brought tears to my eyes.
I can’t raise sons who will have no mental health issues to contend with. But if I can raise sons who know that getting help for their issues is something that’s normal, expected, and healthy, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
Obviously, this isn’t just a “boy thing”— all kids need to be taught that taking your mental health seriously is essential. But those of us raising boys need to do an extra good job of this, because the cards are stacked against our sons from the start.
But we can do this. We can raise the next generation of boys who know that talking about feelings, taking mental health as seriously as physical health, and getting professional help when needed is not something that makes you weaker or less of a “man.” It’s exactly the thing that makes you stronger.