When a parent learns that their child has been diagnosed with a mental illness, they may be inclined to place the blame on their own parenting skills. The truth is that the cause of a child’s mental illness is greatly influenced by a number of things, especially the child’s genetic makeup and biological predispositions. However, parenting and a child’s environment make a critical difference.
If we look to the movies for an example, Guido, the main character in the 1997 film “Life is Beautiful,” had quite a different way of looking at his experiences. Despite his harsh reality of a concentration camp existence, he’s able to transform his and his son’s perception of it by turning it into a game of sorts. In doing so, he builds his son’s resilience and internal strength in the face of the unimaginable horrors of WWII Germany.
With the concept of resiliency in mind, we spoke to Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist Dr. Soad Michelsen of Clarity Child Guidance Center about what parents need to know to help their child experience balanced mental health in the future.
Is perception a determining factor when it comes to mental health?
SM: While perception is certainly a factor in someone’s mental health, it’s not the only one, of course. It’s multifactorial, a combination of both internal and external factors. Genetics carry a predisposition for something – be it Depression, Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia – and the addition of external factors can cause the illness to surface. On the other hand, someone could have the genes for one of these illnesses, but they never present with the condition. We can see this in the life of some monozygotic twins. While they are both genetically the same, one of them may have the symptoms of Schizophrenia while the other one doesn’t. They both clearly have the genetic predisposition, but only one of them experienced an external factor that allowed the condition to present itself.
So what kind of external factors can bring out a mental illness?
SM: Things that cause direct trauma to the brain – a car wreck, a concussion, another type of accident. Those are external factors that can result in a mental illness. The use of illegal drugs can also be an external factor that changes the brain. Emotional trauma must also be considered. Exposure to war, abuse in all forms, a death in the family - those external experiences can cause emotional trauma and lead to a mental illness.
What about health conditions and mental illness?
SM: Infections like Strep Throat can lead to symptoms of a mental illness. It not only makes you feel really bad physically, but it can also produce an immunological response that can affect the brain and result in mood disorders. A stroke is another condition that can affect someone’s mental health. A stroke stops the blood flow to the brain, so that can affect the brain in a negative way.
Can you talk a little bit more about how drugs can induce mental health symptoms?
SM: Your brain is full of chemicals that do certain things. When someone takes drugs, it may give them a feeling of pleasure, but they’re throwing off their brain chemistry. It’s risking the start of a whole chain of mental health symptoms. As an example, if you abuse mushrooms, you’re going to hallucinate because mushrooms are a hallucinogenic. To be clear, Cannabis does not cause Schizophrenia. However, someone that smokes marijuana can experience psychosis.
Is there anything parents can do to help prevent mental illness in their children?
SM: Parents can teach resilience. Resilience is equal to coping skills, which brings us back to the “Life is Beautiful” example. The dad helped the child with resilience, so the child was not living the war, but a life of hope. There was hope at the end. It’s important to teach kids to cope with discomfort, adversity and challenges.
So what does that look like in a day-to-day example?
SM: Parents can point out the moments of discomfort and embrace them in order to address them. For example, today we go to a restaurant and our kids don’t want to sit there because it’s boring. So as parents, sometimes we give them an iPad because we don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, because it makes us uncomfortable. By avoiding the discomfort we aren’t teaching children to exercise their social skills, and they can’t find enjoyment. Instead as parents, we need to say let’s find the fun, we need to work on our conversation skills, or hand them crayons and paper to start a conversation. Overall, we need to let our kids know that it’s ok to feel uncomfortable and to work through it.
If you believe your child is experiencing symptoms of mental illness, there is help and hope. Clarity Child Guidance is here for you and your family.