Sadly, mental illness in Aussie kids is rapidly on the rise, and, as a parent, it can be challenging to talk to your children about it. For Mental Health Month in October, Dr Monika Schott is on a mission to teach Aussie kids about mental health, publishing a heart-warming book ‘My Dad built me the best and wackiest cubby ever’ which helps them understand mental illness on their terms. Here, Lifestyle News talks to Monika about this important issue.
Q: Why do you think there is a need to teach our children about mental health?
A: It’s crucial that we have conversations with our children and create more awareness about mental health, adults too.
According to the Australian Psychological Society, in 2022, children aged 6-12 years showed a sharp rise in mental illnesses, with some of the largest increases including Social Anxiety Disorder (45%) and ADHD (42%).
And Smiling Minds, leaders in pre-emptive mental health in youth-based programs, says 70% of patients presenting to Australian paediatricians are for mental health concerns.
Parents can struggle to broach the topic of mental health with their children, but Covid and our lockdowns changed things and we’ve become more open around mental health.
It’s important we remove the stigma around mental health. When talking with my children, I explained that brains become unwell like any other parts of our bodies and the chemical imbalance that occurs.
The difference is, we can’t see anything physically wrong with the brain. For children, it’s about putting it in a way that they will understand.
Q: Tell me about your experiences with your family around mental health.
A: My experience started almost 30 years ago when my brother suffered his first and most severe psychotic episode. He almost didn’t recover.
Since then, he has been in and out of hospital, has shaved his eyebrows off because Lucifer told him to, then believed he was Lucifer, underwent electric shock treatment, put on experimental medications and attempted suicide a number of times, one of which saw him struck by a car and left with a broken neck and back and permanent brain injury.
He would spend so much time hiding in his bedroom or lounge room, terrified of the imaginary cameras in every shop and street that he thought were following his every move.
As a family, we went to classes and did all the learning we could to help him and us understand what was going on for him and his brain, all his emotions and delusions.
We had some very steep learning curves in trying to understand erratic emotions and behaviours, and how they related to the brain.
It was honesty, patience, compassion and understanding, even when no understanding could be found, that got us through.
After that, my then husband faced some mental health challenges and friends suffered depression and every time I mentioned my connection to mental ill health, more people would open up about their stories.
Q: Was it hard to chat to your children about it? Is this what led you to writing your book?
A: I didn’t find it difficult to chat to my children about poor mental health because they had been exposed to it ever since they could remember by witnessing my brother.
They learned to understood it, and patience for it, which is why I say that we shouldn’t underestimate what our children can understand, and to never insult their intelligence.
The challenge for me was in talking to my children about the poor mental health of their father, someone they loved dearly.
That was close to the bone. And then to differentiate between their father’s depression and my brother’s mental illness.
All I could do was be open and honest, speak carefully to alleviate any fear, and to explain the science behind it.
I went looking for books to help me but couldn’t find anything honest and real, many danced around the topic. That propelled me to start writing my own book, which I’m thrilled has recently been published.
Q: Is your book for children, or parents, or both?
A: While I wrote the book for children to help them understand mental health and break down the stigma around mental illness, I also wanted parents, teachers, carers and health professionals to have a resource to help them talk about mental health with children.
What has been positively wonderful is that many adults are reading it to help themselves better understand mental health, including their own.
One mother was reading it while recovering from a mental breakdown, another mother told how it perfectly explained her battle with postnatal depression, and another gave it to her children to help them understand their father’s depression.
That’s been quite unexpected and very humbling. Psychologists are buying it for their waiting rooms and schools have begun using it in classrooms; governments are looking at it as a resource in schools.
I’ve been told that it’s the children’s book that every adult must read.
Q: Tell me a little about your book.
A: It's is a timely and compassionate story about a child and father setting out to build a cubby house under streaming sunshine.
Then clouds snake in on a hazing horizon… skies swell, a clouding storm brews until it finally breaks and swirls into pouring rains and eventually subsides. All the while, the cubby grows wackier, with the rustiest of riches that rattle and rule!
This is all a metaphor for the father’s mental ill health that gently aligns with the building of the cubby and changing emotions and weather.
My warm-hearted story, with full colour illustrations, helps give some understanding through the eyes of a child.
It comes with a list of resources for teachers, carers, health professionals and families in the back of the book.
Q: Do you think there needs to be more discussion in general around mental illness in children?
A: Absolutely, we need to be more open about mental health and talk honestly about it.
With poor mental health on the increase, we need to be better equipped in ourselves as adults, so we can help children understand mental health.
It will help them as they grow into adults, help them to manage themselves, their health and emotions, as well as be more compassionate and patient of people suffering poor mental health.
There are many programs and resources that help to do that, many are listed in my book.
All children, people, should have the opportunity to grow into, and be adults, with the best possible mental health.
You can purchase Monika's book through her website www.monikaschott.com or e-retailers including Barnes and Noble, Booktopia, Amazon. Internationally renowned psychiatrist, Professor Pat McGorry., said “As a parent, I wish I had this book many years ago.”