Describing our feelings and emotions to others – or even ourselves – is a difficult task for many of us. As mental health is not something that you can physically see, it’s hard to understand it from a more traditional health care perspective. Regardless, your son’s mental health is as important as his physical health so it’s important to be aware of how you can help him and where to find extra support. Before you can learn how to talk to your son about his mental health, you must be aware of what it is.
Mental health and mental illness
The terms mental health and mental illness are sometimes used interchangeably but it’s important to know the difference between them. Beyond Blue describes mental health as “being about wellness rather than illness”. The emphasis is on a person’s state of wellbeing and their ability to cope with normal life. Mental illness on the other hand, is a health issue that significantly affects how someone thinks, behaves and interacts with others. It affects one in five Australians and includes conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Importantly, people who experience mental illness and their families deserve and need support; this support must also be appropriate to enable the affected people to stay well connected in their community in a meaningful way – whilst having their mental health needs addressed.
Here is a guide on how to approach your son’s mental health.
Look out for signs
It can be hard to know when your son is going through hard times, or something more serious like anxiety or depression. Look out for signs such as withdrawal, loss of appetite or fatigue. Telltale signs can include making excuses for not hanging out with his friends, saying he is always tired or being quick to lose his temper. If you see any of these changes check in to see if he is okay. Sometimes just asking “Are you okay?” can start the necessary conversation.
Listen to him
Listen to what he has to say and do not rush to give advice. Let him know that you are there to help however you can. It’s important to respect his words and be empathetic. Although it seems obvious, remind him that you love and care about him, and that you are happy to listen when he want to talk. By listening and responding in a non-judgemental and reassuring manner, you are beginning to help.
Talk about what’s going on
Knowing what to say can be hard. Saying things like “I’ve noticed that you seem a bit down lately”, and “Is there anything I can do?” shows that you are aware that something is wrong and you want to know how to help. You won’t always have all the answers – and that is fine. Regular, caring and empathetic communication is the key.
Seek help together
Encourage your son to get some support if he needs it, and help him find it. Ask for advice from a friend or family member who has dealt with a similar issue or if it’s more serious, seek out professional help. You can arrange an appointment with a health professional, but make sure that both you and your son attend the preliminary sessions.
There are plenty of resources available as well as free helplines. Here are some to keep in mind:
- Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14 – Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention.
- Youth Beyond Blue–a program for people aged 12 to 25 that promotes key messages of look, listen, talk and seek help.
- The Black Dog Institute – dedicated to understanding, preventing and treating mental illness.
- NSW Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) Competency Framework – see page 16 for Developmental Contexts; these elements should always be considered when assessing risk of children. This document is a framework intended for use by NSW public sector mental health professionals working with children and their families.
- NSW Health – lists a breakdown of the various programs that exist in the New South Wales Department of Health.
- Mental Health Commission of New South Wales – Is an independent statutory agency responsible for improving mental health and wellbeing for people in NSW.
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