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How Parents Can Talk About Mental Illness With Their Kids

For many parents and caregivers, it can be difficult to pick up the signs that their child may be struggling with mental illness.

Mental illness is very common among young people, with about one in seven Australian children experiencing mental health issues -- and about half of all issues in adulthood starting before the age of 14.

"For many young people, it will be relatively short-lived and self-contained. But for others, it might be the start of something more serious," Associate Professor Chris Davey from Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, told 10 daily.

Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health issues, with one in five adolescents experiencing a depressive episode by age 18.

While psychotic disorders, personality disorders and bipolar disorder are less prevalent, they can lead to long-term disability unless treated early.

Photo: Getty.

Davey, a psychiatrist who heads Orygen's research into mood disorders, said it's important to recognise that mental illness does not begin abruptly.

"Often, it's a slow and gradual onset of symptoms so that might make it harder for people to observe," he said. 

"While young people are the best people to observe what's going on for themselves, they may not recognise this, or may not want to confide in their parents.  So, parents may want to look out for some signs when things aren't right."

READ MORE: Huge Youth Mental Health Boost In Record Budget Medical Spend

According to Professor Ian Hickie, Co-Director of the Sydney Medical School's Brain and Mind Centre, families and caregivers are often best placed to pick up on vital changes in a young person's behaviour.

This could include withdrawing from normal social groups or activities at school or work.

"When someone who has been functional in those areas suddenly -- or over a period of time -- begins to pull back, you should ask yourself the question, 'why?'" Hickie told 10 daily.

"People often think, 'I don't know what's going on inside a person's head'. You don't need to know this; you just need to be a regular observer of a person's behaviour."

Hickie said caregivers should look out for changes in a young person's normal daily routine, such as their sleep cycle. In more serious cases, they could turn to alcohol or other drugs, or begin to express "unusual thoughts or ideas" that appear out of context.

"These kinds of marked changes in behaviour should spark the general question: can we try and help to find an explanation? That may be mental illness," he said.

Both Davey and Hickie said most young people will eventually respond to someone they trust.

READ MORE: How To Talk To Anyone About Mental Health 

Photo: Getty Images

Davey suggested being upfront and warned against "skirting around the issue".

"If in doubt, just ask. Mention you've noticed the young person doesn't seem to be themselves, they they seem worried about things," he said. 

"Even if they might not want to say right at that moment there is something going on, knowing that someone has observed them is meaningful and might make them more likely to change their mind about speaking out or seeking help elsewhere."

Hickie agreed, adding parents or caregivers "don't have to know the answer".

"One of the best places to go together is the internet, to find information. And then to the healthcare system," he said. 

Online resources can be found at 'eheadspace', a federal government-funded mental health service and 'Head to Health'.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

If you need help in a crisis, or just need someone to talk to, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. 

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au