Depression and bipolar disorder affect the whole family. Helping kids and teens understand the facts about mental health conditions and how to promote their own mental wellness can have a major impact on their lives.

Joanne Riebschleger, PhD, is Associate Professor and the Director of the Doctoral Program at the Michigan State University School of Social Work. For more than 30 years, she has been tirelessly working to educate kids and families on mental health disorders and how to find support.

Son and Father TalkingMyth: We shouldn’t discuss topics like depression, bipolar disorder, or suicide with kids and teens.
Fact: Educating kids and teens about mental health conditions leads to healthier families.

Dr. Riebschleger shared a story about the young kids of a mother being hospitalized for depression. The kids were confused and frightened. When she looked for books and resources to help the kids better understand what was happening, there was nothing available. This led Dr. Riebschleger to write an illustrated book with her daughter, “Good Days and Bad Days.”

Building from there, in the early 1980s, Dr. Riebschleger started a program in Michigan for kids whose parents were struggling with mental health conditions. The team set out to provide basic information about mental health disorders to kids in schools.

Not everyone thought then – or even now – that mental illness is an appropriate topic for kids, but Dr. Riebschleger strongly disagrees.

“Kids appreciate getting straight information. Learning about mental health and mental illness can only help and empower them – so they can help their parent or family member, or themselves, should they ever develop symptoms.”

According to research from Stanford, a child is 40-50% more likely to experience depression if their parent has the condition.

Father and Son ConsolingDr. Riebschleger and her team hear questions from kids like these:

  • I thought drugs were bad, why does my parent take them?
  • Why does my parent’s medication make her seem out of it?
  • Why do people make fun of my parent?
  • Is my parent going to be well enough to go to work?
  • Is my family member suicidal?
  • How do I know when to do something if things get bad?
  • Is my family member going to get better?

The programs her team offers cover common mental health conditions and help the kids build knowledge about paths to recovery. They discuss exercise, nutrition, and the role of medication. They offer strategies to manage and cope with stress. They also give kids and teens the tools to recognize and respond when there are issues with their families or friends.

The outcomes from programs like this are substantial. Anecdotally, Dr. Riebschleger has seen that families seek help earlier, and are more likely to know whom to contact and how to talk about their challenges. Kids with higher mental health literacy talk more about mental health with adults and peers in their lives. They learn how to manage their stress and how to intervene if they feel poorly. And they are more likely to understand it’s not their fault when a family member struggles with mental illness.

Son and Mother ExercisingMyth: Kids can’t or shouldn’t be caregivers
Fact: Kids often are caregivers. Equipping them to support a family member can lower their stress levels and lead to better outcomes.

“Kids don’t miss much,” says Dr. Riebschleger. “They are often the first ones to notice something is wrong. And sometimes they are the only ones who can raise the flag that a parent is struggling. It’s a difficult situation, but it happens all the time.”

“Most kids welcome the chance to learn how they can help their family members and how to take care of their own mental health. There is huge value in working with the whole family,” Dr. Riebschleger says.

Kids should know they are not alone and their families should not struggle alone. If you are worried about yourself or a loved one, find out how you can get help.

Mother and daughter hugMyth: Families that stigmatize mental health conditions can’t be helped.
Fact: Education about mental health reduces stigma and opens the door for conversations about family mental wellness.

Dr. Riebschleger stressed that her work is far from done. Coming out of the pandemic, studies show that at least one-third of high school students have thoughts of suicide. Mental health literacy across the world is low, especially where it carries more stigma, such as in rural, immigrant, Latinx, and Asian communities. She looks forward to a day when kids can grow up in an environment where it is ok for everyone to talk about mental health and she believes that mental health education is the key.

Dr. Riebschleger is optimistic that educational programs for kids about mental health – in tandem with adult education – will continue to reduce the stigma and lead to healthier families as well as faster recoveries when signs of mental health conditions appear.

“Many families need to be vigilant,” Dr. Riebschleger concludes. “There are good days and bad, but there is help for them. Really, the most important part of our education programs is to make sure kids understand that there is hope. That just like with other illnesses there are treatments available and that people can get better.”

Additional Resources