Talking To Kids About Mental Illness

By Kathleen Boros | Nov. 16, 2018


In my children’s book about mental health awareness, Binky Bunny Wants to Know about Bipolar, Binky Bunny sees Mama Bunny sleeping a lot and wonders why she won’t wake up and play with him. When he asks his mom what’s wrong, he learns about bipolar disorder.

Binky learns that Mama Bunny loves him very much, but she needs her naps to function from day to day. It’s not that she’s avoiding Binky, or the chores that need to be done around the house; she wants to work and play, but she was born with an invisible illness in her brain that slows her hop.

Binky learns that he needs to work with his father to help Mama Bunny feel better. He doesn’t want bipolar disorder and its symptoms to keep her from experiencing life’s everyday gifts. Now educated and engaged, Binky is determined to help his mom live in an environment where she can heal.

This book is my way of showing how important it is to talk with our children about all aspects of mental health—including mental illness. As a parent with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I’ve already started a dialogue with my 8-year-old son to help him get a better grasp of what’s going on with me. I believe I was given my illness for a reason, and I’m not going to keep quiet about it, especially with my son.

I don’t believe in hiding behind stigma and just telling him I’m tired. I’m upfront and honest, because I believe if we want to live in a society free of stigma, we have a moral obligation to educate our children.

Keep Your Kids In The Loop

As soon as children are old enough to understand that mommy or daddy isn’t “like the other mommies or daddies,” it’s time to have a talk. It’s OK if they don’t understand right away. Every day is another opportunity for more education. Have a recurring family meeting or a set, consistent time when you all sit down and have a candid conversation about mental health. This will provide repeated opportunities for discussion and for your children to ask questions.

My family does this pretty informally. When my husband and I are together at the end of each day, we ask my son how his day was. This is a perfect opportunity to let your child know if you’re having a good day or if you need a little extra help. For example, on a day when loud noises might be bothering me, I might ask my son to keep it down for me and explain why.

Also use this time to explain how your mental illness is currently affecting your daily routine. If you’re a parent with a mental health condition who needs to be alone or take naps to recharge (like Mama Bunny and me), kids might be worried there’s something wrong with you, or worse, that you don’t want to spend time with them. Make sure they know nothing could be further from the truth. It might not be every day you have to sleep in or take naps, but if you have a particularly sleepy week, reassure your children it’s not something you’re doing to avoid them. Taking a nap is sometimes like taking a shower—just a part of daily hygiene.

Answer Their Questions

I know I don’t have all the answers, so if my son asks me something I’m unsure about during our talks, I’ll seek resources from my doctor or local library. If I need to explain something about mood, depression, mania or hospitalization, I’ll try to find something age-appropriate I can read to my son. But there really isn’t a lot of reading material about mental illness for children. So, I’ll often write down his questions and bring them to my next appointment so my doctor can give detailed, kid-friendly explanations I can bring home.

A few times, I’ve set up appointments for the two of us or our whole family to visit my doctor. My family finds this very helpful because no matter how much research we might do on our own time, bipolar disorder is different for everyone who experiences it. No two people with the same diagnosis have identical symptoms or express their illness in the same way. So, it’s great when my family can get together to talk to my mental health professional, who helps me with my illness, about how we can all cope together as a family. When we leave, we feel like we’re all on the same page.

Be Honest About Medication

This might not be a popular opinion, but I think children should also be informed of the medications their parents are taking. Medications for depression cause certain side effects, while medications for psychosis cause other side effects and medications for anxiety cause different side effects still. I think it’s important for children to know what to expect.

And it’s OK to tell children that having to take medication for your illness is something not under your control. Just like how they need shots to stay healthy or take antibiotics when they get sick—with mental illness comes medication. We might not like it, but we need it.

Keep The Conversation Going

Teaching kids about mental health should not stop once they leave the house. School is an important place for them to learn more, and school counselors and teachers should have resources about mental illness and suicide. It’s also beneficial for a child to have a non-biased counselor to talk to if they have questions they don’t feel comfortable asking you, or if they’re having mental health concerns about themselves.

A great resource for schools is NAMI Ending the Silence, an in-class presentation in which students learn about mental illness from someone with lived experience. Having conversations and learning about mental health in school will only reinforce the information you share with your child at home. The more education your child receives about mental health, the more important it will seem.

As parents, we’re not mind-readers, and we can’t afford to pretend we are. That’s why it’s so important to communicate with our children about mental illness—even if it’s difficult to talk about or explain. We never know what they might be thinking, and it’s only fair to you and your children to be honest about your mental health.

I wrote my children’s books about bipolar disorder because my son was starting to ask questions, and I’d rather he learn from me about mental illness than the callous things he might learn from those who aren’t educated.

I’ve seen amazing ripple effects since starting our talks: My son now educates others on the topic. He has tools in his toolbox to use if someone says something about mental illness he knows isn’t true.

To help end stigma, we need to start with our own children. So if you’re a parent living with mental illness, fill your house with love and mental health awareness. Don’t procrastinate, educate. And feel free to use Binky Bunny. Together, we can all hop to stop stigma!


Kathleen Boros is originally from Massachusetts and was brought up in Florida. She’s been married for 15 years and has an 8-yearold son. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19 and is now 41. She received a bachelor’s in behavioral science and a master’s in special education. She enjoys writing to educate children and their families about mental illness. Join her efforts to educate children on mental health with Binky Bunny.

Avoiding Holiday Stressors: Tips For A Stress-Free Season

By: Jessica Maharaj

The “most wonderful time of the year” can quickly turn into the most stressful time of the year for many. When compounded by a mental illness, common holiday pressures can create a perfect storm of exacerbated stressors, symptoms and setbacks if not proactively addressed.

The reality is that potential hazards exist at every turn during the holidays. These situations can trigger heightened difficulties for people suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental illnesses. The holidays can also introduce additional stressors such as complicated relationship dynamics at family gatherings, grief over losing a loved one or simply trying to live up to the unattainable expectations of the “perfect holiday.”

While it’s important that all people consider the impact of the holidays on emotional well-being, it is crucial that those with mental illness consider tactics for avoiding pitfalls. Of all the things on your holiday preparation to-do list, the most critical one is maintaining your mental health and practicing self-care.

Major Depressive Disorder With A Seasonal Pattern

Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD), is a form of depression that often accompanies changes in seasons. This disorder results from chemical changes in the brain and body and is best controlled with the help of a mental health professional who understands the nuances of treating this condition. Whether through online, remote care options such as telepsychiatry or in-person treatments, seeking professional support is truly beneficial in proactively managing this condition leading up to, during and following the holiday season.

Symptoms of SAD can become more pronounced as the holidays approach. These tips can help you manage your symptoms during the holidays.

  • Stay hydratedDrink plenty of water and herbal teas, and don’t forget to hydrate your skin with lotions and lip balms. Hydration nourishes the brain and its physical effects can improve your overall mood.
  • Find time to exerciseThe holiday season is a great time to ice skate, ski or hike. If you don’t have access to these outdoor activities, any form of exercise will release endorphins, which can lessen the symptoms of depression.
  • Spend time with loved ones. This offers an opportunity for social interaction, which can help lessen the feelings of loneliness that may come around this time of year.
  • Pamper yourselfTaking a bath, having a warm drink or getting a massage can create a sense of calm and happiness, especially during the stress of the holidays.
  • Indulge without overconsumingTreating yourself can make you happy, but over-indulging in unhealthy food around the holidays can negatively impact symptoms.

Grief Over The Holidays

One of the greatest holiday stresses is the absence of a loved one who passed away. The empty seat where they would have sat can fill families with a sense of grief, loss and emptiness, as well as worsen symptoms for individuals with mental illness. The following recommendations can help you and your family cope:

  • It’s not all sadKnow that some parts of the holiday will be wonderful, and some parts will be sad. The anticipation of sadness may be stressful, but the holidays provide an opportunity for healing. You can still take joy in the relatives that are present and remember fond memories of holidays past.
  • It is okay to feel the way you feelIt is healthy to acknowledge your feelings and work through them, rather than suppressing them.
  • Take care of yourselfFind healthy ways to cope, such as exercising. Organizing family walks is a great way to get fresh air and enjoy the company of others. Don’t search for solace in unhealthy foods or alcohol. If alcohol is present, drink responsibly.
  • Don’t feel pressured to uphold family traditionsWhile they might be a comforting way to remember a loved one, sometimes family traditions are too painful to bear. Your family will find new ways to celebrate, and your traditions will adjust with time.

Keep in mind that the loved ones you lost would want you to remember them fondly, to enjoy the holiday season, and to find comfort in having the family come together.

Managing Holiday Expectations

The holiday season only comes once a year, and while it’s understandable to aspire for perfection, it’s important to set realistic, attainable goals. The following are a few key tips for avoiding the stress of perfection.

  • Make a budgetWhile the average American household spent nearly $1,000 on holiday gifts in 2017, it’s important not to go overboard. Do your best to stick to a budget while still leaving a small amount extra for wiggle room; the holidays tend to bring out the generosity in us.
  • Come up with a planSpread out your errands, so you don’t become overwhelmed with too many tasks at once, and don’t forget to schedule some relaxation time!
  • Find the best time to shopMalls are less crowded on weekdays and weeknights. If you can manage, try to go during the day and park farther away from the stores. Your time in the sunlight walking to or from your car can boost your serotonin levels. Practicing mindful activities while you wait in line can also help you stay calm among the holiday shopping chaos.
  • Be kind to yourselfAll you can do is your best and your best is good enough. It’s impossible to please everyone, but we are often our own harshest critics.

Keep in mind that the holidays are about spending time with loved ones, not gifts. Your friends and family will be happy to create memories with you, so don’t worry about finding an expensive gift or if they will like it; they will appreciate your efforts and affection regardless of what you give them.

The holidays bring joy and happiness as well as frustration and stress. This holiday season, you may have many things to take care of, but the most important one is yourself.

Jessica Maharaj, a Certified Nursing Assistant, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at George Washington University while also working at InSight Telepsychiatry. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology with a second major in Biology and a concentration in Human Services from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Jessica was the President of UMBC’s campus chapter of NAMI during her undergraduate career.