I want to challenge you to answer honestly when I say these two words: Mentally ill.
What was the image you created in your mind? Was it a homeless person shuffling down the street? Was it a person in a straitjacket? Someone rocking back and forth?
Now, look around you. Count the first five people you see. Tell me what they're wearing and what they're doing. Because one in five of those people suffer from a serious mental illness. They are our children, our boyfriends, our husbands, and our mothers and fathers. They are our co-workers, our friends, the dentist who cleans your teeth, and the teacher who tutors your child. They are our daughters and our sons.
Before May, 2013, Angie's view of mental illness went something like this: "We have a loving family. My children are straight A students, top athletes, and student body leaders. I don't need to worry about mental illness." When Angie saw stories about mental health in the local paper, she glossed over them as if the information somehow didn't apply to her.
The afternoon of May 1 turned into late evening and Cody still wasn't home from his baseball game. Her frantic texts went unreturned. The phone call from her local Sheriff blew apart every protective mechanism Angie had constructed--the one that began with, "We eat dinner together every night. My son helps do the dishes, for god sakes, he is fine."
No matter how wealthy, how smart, how supportive, or how connected you are, it doesn't protect the people you love from suffering from anxiety, depression, ptsd, and suicidal thoughts. Every brain is a living organ. And every organ can become vulnerable to illness.
Here what you can do to help buffer your kids: Talk about emotions. Along with good books and good teachers, give your kids language that allows them to express fear, vulnerability, jealousy, rage, anxiety, sadness, joy. Make emotional literacy as important as their grades. Make it more important than trophies.
By opening yourself up to your kids, exposing your fears and your challenges--even your failures, you will become real to kids who may be struggling to fit in to an Instagram world; where everything appears beautiful, where successes are shared, but failures rarely get mentioned.
It's a world in which teenagers may be swimming like ducks, smooth on the surface, but paddling like hell below the water just to keep up.