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Explaining mental illness to children and young people

Hi, my name’s Chineye. My mum developed mental illness when I was born, and when I was growing up, no one really explained anything about it to me, like what it was, how it’s caused, and how it could be treated. Some people use different words for it, like mental illness, mental difficulty. But some can be quite hurtful, like stupid, mad, silly. So I thought, if you have parents with that sort of illness, maybe I could get some explanation for you. This is so that the children can have a better understanding about it, and perhaps talk to their parents about it. When you can understand something, you can deal with it so much better, even if it is a bit scary.
But then where do you start to try to understand something that most people just don’t want to talk about? Will you draw me a mum or a dad? I don’t mind if it’s a mum or a dad.
Now let me ask you a really rude question. Have you got a brain? Yeah. Where do you keep it? In my head. OK, can you give her a brain, a nice red brain. That’s lovely. Thank you very much. OK, let’s have another one. There, is that right? Do you think, yes, that’s right, except it’s bigger, always bigger. Is it always bigger? It goes down to about there. Really. So there. Yeah, pretty good. So when you get down to there, this is it. Even further, right down there. OK. Remember, as I said, it has this other funny bit goes down inside your back. Spinal cord. Spinal cord. That’s right. Now can anybody tell me what the brain’s for.
What does it do? When you want to move your hand, it tells your hand that you want to move it. It just moves your hands. It moves your body and your actions. Moves your body. Very good. Does it do anything else? It’s like, it has like so you can remember stuff? Makes decisions for you. The brain controls everything, for speech. Yes. Motion, emotions. Ah, now, wait a minute. What’s that word? Anybody know what that word is she used there, emotions? They’re like your feelings. So the brain controls everything. But how? The brain like tells your hand what to do. So there’s a nerve telling it what to do. Gabby, come up here a minute.
Now, Gabby, look at this group a minute. OK, now can you put your arm right up in the air? Right. Now put your arm down again. Now why did you do that? Your brain sent a message down, we’ve told your arm to go up, made your muscles work, right? If you turn around a minute, and you close your eyes a minute, where is it now? Back of my head. Right, and how do you know that. Because I can feel it in my hand. Yes. OK, that’s very good. You see, here’s a funny thing. When you have your hand in that, like that, like Gabby had it, your hand sends messages down, which tells your brain where it is.
So when you’re trying to do things, your brain and your body are like talking to each other the whole time. Now, has anybody ever been in school, where the teacher says, stop talking and pay attention? None of you? Yes. Oh, only the girls. Oh. Now why do they say that? Yeah, why? Because you’re not concentrating on your work. Yes, but why aren’t you concentrating? Because you’re thinking about something else rather than your work. But can’t you think about more than one thing at a time? But they don’t want you to, because they want you to like concentrate and get things right.
Now that’s because all of our brains, they can only manage just enough stuff, just enough ideas, just enough things that we think about. If we get too many things in our brains, we can’t manage. So let me think about this. Our brain controls everything in our body, but also what we think about. So if you need to concentrate in class, you’ll find it’s difficult if there’s lots of distractions. We tried an experiment to see what it’s like. To try and stop Lewis from concentrating on what Sar is going to tell him. Louder. Louder. [INTERPOSING VOICES] He finds other survivors.
He meets up with another colony. What’s your favourite colour? What’s your favourite number? Maybe be finds a cure, but then he has to decide, because then he has to cure. What’s your name? So Lewis, can you tell us about the plot of that film? It was of a scientist discovering a cure for cancer, but then goes wrong as then everyone turns into humans. Then Will Smith tries to find, tries to kill monsters and find the cure. In the end he does. But then he dies in the end. Did he get it right? Yeah, but everyone turned into monsters, not humans. All right, but pretty good, wasn’t it? Considering how much distraction he had.
And that’s because most of us, even though we’ve got all these different things happening to us, we can sort of just choose what we want to hear. Lewis didn’t do too bad. But it shows that you don’t get it quite right if there’s too much going on. I think what Alan’s getting at is that, just like the brain talks to your body, so it can also choose what it listens to. So how do our brains manage to concentrate, if they’ve got too much stuff coming into them? It’s like the bottom of the brain, here, has, and I was trying to think of a proper word for this.
It has like, you could call it a net, or do you know the thing that they have in a kitchen called a sieve, you know, if you want to wash vegetables. So it could be like a net or a sieve or a philtre. And it just lets through as much thoughts, or as much ideas, as you can manage, you see. You can, with your brain, you can stop thoughts and ideas coming in, if you can’t manage them. Now the problem is, for some people, this stops working terribly well. They can’t control how much ideas and feelings and thoughts come into their brain.
And when somebody has a mental illness, that’s one of the things that happens to them, that too many thoughts come in and they can’t shut them out, too many feelings, too many ideas.
Anybody know why that would happen? Yeah. If they’re worried? Yes, that’s right, if they’re very, very, very, very worried, and they’ve got so many worries that they can’t shut the worries out. Sometimes that’s a reason why they wouldn’t be able to shut thoughts out. Yeah. Maybe because there’s too many things going on around them. Yes, that’s like worried and too many things. That’s very good, yeah, that’s right. Yeah, and sometimes something goes wrong with this, so that the person can’t think, and they can’t sort out one thought from another.
If we make people go somewhere quiet, when somebody goes to hospital, the idea is that they can cut down, that they don’t have too many things to worry about, too many things to think about, and that they can feel calmer. And also they would have medicine. We’ll put a big M for medicine. And the idea of the medicine is like to calm this down temporarily, until they get better. It doesn’t exactly cure them, but it allows them to get better. You see, one of the problems is that the medicines, they don’t actually cure it. When something doesn’t work in the body, the body has to actually make it better itself. It has to heal it, do you see?
And what the medicine does, is it’s a bit like a bandage, really. It’s a sort of bandage that keeps it calm, so it can get better, right? Yeah. Now, the problem is that some people either don’t take their medicine, so they don’t have the bandage, so they get more confused, or sometimes the healing takes a very long time. That’s why it’s very important, for adults, if they’ve had an illness like this, to get treatment and to try and keep the treatment going till they get better, not to stop it too soon. To some extent it could happen to everybody. But mostly, people need a lot of stress.
But if this part of the brain has become very weak, then a relatively small amount of stress could have that effect. If you see a doctor or a mental health worker, or even a social worker, who’s trying to help your mum or dad, please don’t be afraid to ask them to explain to you what mental illness is, how it’s caused, and how it can be treated, and keep asking until you get a better understanding about it. Good luck.

In this video, Dr Alan Cooklin (founder of Our Time) demonstrates practical methods for explaining mental illness to children and young people.

Please post your thoughts on this discussion point using the comments section.

  • How can you apply this approach in your setting?

  • What did you notice about the way that Dr Alan spoke to and addressed the children?

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How To Support Young People Living with Parental Mental Illness

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