I Talk Openly With My Kids About The Psychiatric Medications I Take

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Pattern of Medicine

I have several mental illnesses. The big one is bipolar 2, which if uncontrolled can swing me wildly from hypomania (obsessing over one activity for 15 hours a day, usually) to suicidal depression (exactly what it sounds like). I also have ADHD and severe anxiety. These add up to a lot of drugs we’ve been tinkering with for a decade before hitting on the right combination. I’ve downed just about every psychiatric medication out there. But I have some that work now. I’m incredibly grateful.

I make sure to tell my kids about it, and here’s why.

Related: How To Identify The Signs Of Potential Mental Illness In Your Child, According To An Expert

I won’t let my kids grow up thinking psychiatric medication is shameful.

Laurynas Mereckas/Unsplash

I grew up in a culture that shamed mental illness. My depression started when I was seven years old, and I probably could’ve used psychiatric medication then. Unfortunately, my parents deemed it too shameful to admit I had a mental illness, because they saw it as some sort of failure on their part. My depression went untreated. Large parts of my childhood are blank because long-term exposure to excessive amount of cortisol has turned my memory into Swiss cheese. Relatives with mental illness were ridiculed for their diseases.

I refuse to let my children grow up in that environment. I don’t want them to be afraid of mental illness, afraid of people who have it, and most of all, afraid to reach out and get help if they need it (I put off much-needed mental help for years because of fear that my parents would discover I was seeing a doctor or taking psychiatric medication). So we talk about how I have bipolar disorder and ADHD and depression. We talk about how that affects me — that sometimes I get upset about stupid things; that sometimes I have bad days and get angry for no good reason; that sometimes I worry terribly about things that don’t make sense to worry over. Then we talk about how my psychiatric medication helps me.

That doesn’t mean I tell my kids the details, but it means we talk about how my psychiatric medication helps me stay on even keel and keeps me happy, because my brain chemistry doesn’t work the same way other people’s does. And that’s okay.

They accept this explanation with a shrug.

What if they need meds one day?

Scary Mommy and

Malte Mueller/Getty

One of my children already takes so-called psychiatric medication for ADHD, and we’ll likely make the choice to medicate another very soon. They have a strong genetic disposition to the condition — both their father and I have severe cases — so it’s not a shock; ADHD is strongly linked to genetics.

Unfortunately, so are other psychiatric conditions.

One study cites the heritability of generalized anxiety disorder (which my husband and I both suffer from) at a whopping 30%. Translation: my kids have a very, very good chance of having an anxiety disorder of some kind, and that anxiety disorder will likely need medical treatment of some kind. While cognitive-behavioral therapy can help, it’s useful to know what drugs worked for people in your family — they’re more likely to work for you. Because we have an open dialogue about my psychiatric medication, my children will be able to say, “Hey, Mama, do you think Wellbutrin or Prozac might be a better choice?”

Scariest of all, there’s evidence that bipolar disorder is heritable as well. As the National Institute of Health says, you have a greater chance of having the disorder if a first degree relative — i.e. a parent or child — has it. My grandmother had bipolar disorder. Most terrifyingly, the National Institute of Health also authored a study determining that while 25-60% of people with bipolar disorder will attempt to end their lives at some point, 4-19% will complete suicide. My children’s ability to talk about psychiatric medication and psychiatric conditions in our family may very well save their lives — especially considering that the same study found that people with bipolar 2 are significantly more likely to use more lethal means during suicide attempts, and that the more times they attempt it, the more likely they are to complete it. If my kids can seek help when they need it, and they aren’t ashamed to take medication, they are likely to live happy, healthy lives.

If shame drives them into hiding their problems, or thinking people who take psychiatric medication are somehow weak, they could die, in the worse case — or at the very least, have impaired functioning. We constantly remind them that I take psychiatric medication for my ADHD, and that if they need to, there’s nothing wrong with that. Because one day, they likely will have to take it. And I don’t want them to muddle around for years afraid of it.

It only makes sense to talk about it.

Sarah Pflug/Burst

I take, at last count, five different kinds of so-called psychiatric medication. That makes for a lot of pharmacy trips. It also makes for a lot of doctor’s appointments. Am I supposed to lie about what drugs I’m picking up? Drugs, kids generally think, are for sick people; if Mama needs drugs, Mama must be sick. I don’t want them to worry about why I might be sick. I tell them: I take this medication for my bipolar disorder. I take this medication for my ADHD. This one helps my anxiety.

It answers the basic questions they ask. If I don’t answer those questions, that shame cycle starts all over again when they discover what those meds are really for. I also don’t want to worry them — nothing like your parent snapping, “Don’t worry about it!” to make a kid worry.

So we’re open about my psychiatric medication. It contributes to an overall openness about mental illness and the need to treat it. We want our kids to be safe and healthy. And in our situation, that means talking to them about drugs.

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