Jennifer Marshall

Ashburn resident Jennifer Marshall with her family. Facebook/Jennifer Marshall (Photo by Lock & Company)

I am a mom, wife and professional who lives with mental illness. My bipolar disorder emerged in my mid-20s, and I live with it every day. I have experienced many struggles, happy times, stable years and, yes, a few hospitalizations for mania related to my condition. Through it all, I have prioritized talking with my children about mental illness. I am purposeful in the way I do this, using age-appropriate language they can understand. It’s an ever-present conversation in our household, not a shameful topic.

We must talk to our kids about mental illness. It may feel like anxiety and depression are buzzwords in today’s society, but the stigma and shame that still surrounds this topic is dangerous and deadly. Our kids need to hear from parents that most people will experience mental illness at various points during their lifetime — and it’s OK to not be OK. Help is available, and asking for it is normal and necessary. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared that the suicide rate for children ages 10 to 14 has caught up to their death rate for traffic accidents. Teens in Virginia receive, on average, 14 hours of behind-the-wheel training before they’re eligible to test for a driver’s license, yet how much time do we dedicate to educating our kids about the importance of mental health?

Recently, a National 4-H Council survey conducted by the Harris Poll (May 2020) included 1,500 young people ages 13 to 19 nationwide and found that seven in 10 teens were struggling with their mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many said their feelings of loneliness had increased, with 64 percent saying they thought it would have a lasting impact on their mental health.

Are we surprised? The past few months have been full of change, stress, sadness and fear for people of all ages. The loss of loved ones, work-from-home scenarios, childcare changes, at-home learning, health concerns and precautions, cancellations and postponements and plenty more. It’s no wonder our kids are suffering.

Conversations about mental illness make us all feel less alone. For children and teens, hearing from adults and peers in open, honest ways can build trust, conversation and a path toward healthy routines and treatment. Robbie’s Hope, a Colorado-based mental health nonprofit founded by parents who lost their son to suicide, offers a downloadable Adult Handbook — created with input from Robbie’s friends — on ways adults can start these conversations with their teens. It’s available to all, with additional resources, on their website.

Parents, we are important too. Many of us are so used to constantly feeling tired, stressed, distracted or worried. It’s so easy to put the needs of our children, of work, of others before our own. But poor sleep, nervousness, inability to concentrate and loss of interest in activities we once loved could indicate a more serious issue. If you aren’t sure if the way you’re feeling is just life or something else, consider taking a mental health screening and make time to connect with a medical professional or therapist. Also, tell a trusted friend, family or loved one. Even if you are not sure about how you’re feeling, tell someone and start the conversation.

When we share our personal experiences about living with or loving others who have mental illness, we chip away at feelings of shame, loneliness or hopelessness. When we see how others are living and thriving with their diagnoses or conditions, it gives us hope. This is why the organization I helped found, This Is My Brave, exists. We host storytelling events all across the country, and this October, in response to COVID-19 precautions, we are launching our first virtual season. People from across the U.S., including many brave teenagers from our region, will share their experiences through creative expression.

I believe that storytelling saves lives. I’ve experienced it myself and seen it replicated time and time again. In times of uncertainty, connection holds us together and binds us as a community. Connection gives us hope. Let’s start these conversations and keep them going — for our health and for that of our children.

Jennifer Marshall of Ashburn is a speaker and writer and the executive director and co-founder of This Is My Brave. More information can be found at ThisIsMyBrave.org.

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