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Teen wearing maroon jacket, blue hoodie and sneakers sits with her head between her knees
Studies show that young people aren’t getting sufficient information – at home, school or online – about mental health and illness. Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images

Kids want to learn more about mental illness and how to cope with parents who live with it

One in five teens has a parent with a mental illness such as anxiety or depression. These teens are at greater risk of developing a mental illness themselves.

And while they may be familiar with the day-to-day behavioral changes of their family member, they often don’t have access to accurate mental health information that can empower them and increase their ability to respond to mental illness stigma.

For nearly 30 years, I’ve researched the mental health information needs of children and teens who have a family member with mental illness. Study after study reveals that these young people don’t receive sufficient information — at home, school or online – about mental health and illness.

Many parents don’t talk with their children about their mental health disorders. Programs that increase teens’ ability to manage their emotions and interact well socially are on the rise in schools. However, schools severely lack funding, resources and staffing to provide structured lessons that cover the full range of mental health literacy. This includes common mental illnesses and treatments, mental illness stigma, coping with stress and seeking help for oneself or others.

Furthermore, young people with family mental health challenges are often overlooked by mental health providers who are responsible for treating their family member.

Children want help. For example, this study of kids ages 5-17 found that among children who know their parents take psychotropic medication, “there was an interest in knowing more about the medication purpose, regime and side effects.”

Our team recently completed a review of youth-targeted mental health websites that will be published in 2021. We found countries such as Australia and Canada have produced websites with information for individuals and families living with mental illness.

However, most of the content was written for those above the sixth-grade reading level needed for many teens, making it inaccessible. Furthermore, most countries – including the U.S. – do not have online resources addressing the needs of children of parents with mental illness.

After identifying this gap, we worked with colleagues to build new resources. Those include a mental health literacy program to teach children about mental illness as well as tools to measure their knowledge of mental health issues. We are now exploring ways to deliver the program online.

Most recently our team built the Mental Health Info for Teens website to provide accurate mental health information for teens. It was designed for those at an early sixth-grade reading level. American teens who have a family member with mental illness helped guide and review content development. This helped ensure the website matched their needs.

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The website provides information for teens on the following four foundations of mental health literacy, which can help them cope when they face family mental health challenges.

1. Understanding mental illness

Identifying mental health disorders, symptoms and treatment is a key component of mental health literacy. This knowledge helps young people understand that symptoms, mood changes and other family dynamics are a result of the mental illness, not something they have done. For example, a teen whose father is diagnosed with bipolar disorder can understand that her father’s extreme mood swings and sudden changes in behavior are caused by his illness and can be treated and managed through a combination of medication and therapy.

2. Myths and stigma busting

Youths often believe that mental illnesses are rare, contagious and untreatable. These myths isolate children living with a family member with mental illness. They may fear what would happen to them if someone were to find out their family secret. Busting myths about mental illness reduces stigma and helps teens realize that many families – even celebrities – struggle with similar challenges.

3. Coping skills

Teenage years are often stressful. Teens are juggling academics, extracurriculars and social relationships. Family mental illness, though no one’s fault, can make these difficult years more stressful. Teens can build a personal plan to manage stress. For example, positive thinking, mindfulness and exercise can help them manage their thoughts, feelings and actions.

4. Seeking help

Teens with a family member with mental illness often find themselves taking care of others. It’s important for them to know where they can find help. Our website has a comprehensive list of resources, including links to crisis hotlines and tools to locate local mental health service providers.

We hope the website can provide a new resource toward increasing mental health information for teens, especially those with family mental illness.

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