This week is Children’s Mental Health Week. I’d never even heard of it until it popped up on Twitter, you know. The school haven’t sent anything home about it; no tips for talking to your kids about feelings, no literature about services you might feel the need to access. He goes to a pretty well-to-do school, and I suppose the children there are so privileged that the school doesn’t have to worry much about the correlation between socio-economic disadvantaged families and poor mental health in children. If only it were quite so straightforward, all of the time.
Away from school, and behind closed doors, I worry about my son. It’s hard to raise a son, to furnish them with the tools that’ll hopefully equip them to navigate the harsh world out there, and to remind them at the same time that vulnerability and emotional intelligence are to be cherished and nurtured.
It comes easily to me, talking about feelings, having lived with a bevy of mental health issues for over 20 years myself. I wonder whether raising a daughter is any easier after all. What I do know is that many children out there don’t have parents who are open with their own feelings, or encourage openness from their children, or even know where to begin with what to do with those feelings. I know, because I was one of those kids once and look how that turned out.
I may have got the communication right, and I’m fairly confident I’ve got the balance of talking about feelings but not letting feelings become overwhelming (another case of me not practising what I preach). But I worry constantly about my son growing up to feel things anywhere near what I’ve felt. Even at a young age, he had a good understanding of what death is because I am factual when he asks me any question no matter what it’s about, and try and play things down so he doesn’t dwell too much. But dwell he did, and death has continued to be a source of worry to him. I say the right things, but I can’t take the worry away. What he doesn’t know is that it’s one of my worries too and that my soothing words are as much for myself to hear as for him.
It breaks my heart to see a five year old have existential angst and I wonder whether his emotional intelligence that I’ve tried to nurture will help him in life or just make him feel things more keenly, even the inevitable troubling things.
As I sit here writing this, taking painkillers to numb the discomfort of side effects caused by anti depressants, I know that this is not what I want for him. I wish there was a magic cure for me, but more than that I wish there was a sure fire way to never let it happen to him. If wishes came true, of course, we’d all lead such very different lives.
I think about my mother’s children; the sadness, the funny moods, the missed job opportunities, the failed relationships, the P45s, the medication, the arrests, the electric shock therapy, the hostels, the psychiatric hospitals, the prisons, the overdoses…
Nobody wants that for their children and even if there was a way to have prevented any of it, she wouldn’t have known how. There weren’t the resources. Nobody talked about resilience or emotional intelligence to ordinary people. Instead she has spent the rest of her life mopping up, trying to protect us all, trying to be there for us all no matter the toll it takes on her. Because you do that when you’re a mother; you give your everything for your children even if it depletes you.
There is a shadow cast by my family tree and how our brains work, not just me and my siblings but others who struggled – a loved brother who disappeared, an adored son who died as an addict, an uncle who walked out of the family home and never looked back – and I worry for my son. I exhaust myself trying to learn about the links between genes and mental health, desperate to find proof that it’s not a foregone conclusion. But if I can’t even fix myself, I figure, then how can I prevent it happening to him?
This week the internet is full of news about children’s mental health services and all I know is that I don’t want to be in a position where I ever have to access them. About raising awareness, and all I know is that I don’t want children’s mental illness to be a subject close to my heart. About how the system is failing children and all I know is that I don’t want my baby to be in that system.
My anxiety holds my hand gently and without me hardly noticing it leads me towards very real scenes of my son in turmoil, scenes that I know could be his future, scenes which are too realistic to bat away. I know I have to do the work myself, to create a foundation for him to grow into a mentally healthy young man. And I can’t afford to get it wrong. I will not lose him and I will not let him live in pain like I have. There’s platitudes about ending stigma and raising awareness for children’s mental health week but that’s not what I’m after. I need something preventative and if the school aren’t going to do it, and there’s little obvious info for parents of younger children, then I’ll just have to keep doing it myself, making it up as I go along, and doing what mothers do: giving your everything no matter what.