As the mother of a toddler I invariably have Sesame Street as the background sound to my house (thinking it slightly more educational than Peppa Pig?). Last week whilst going about mundane house duties something made my ears prick up. Time to announce the word of the day…. Drum roll….. “Anxiety!”.
Yep, the word of the day on Sesame Street was Anxiety. And what followed was thirty minutes of toddler explanations about anxiety, songs about anxiety and games about anxiety. The overall take home message from these lovable puppets was that everyone has some form of anxiety, right down to listing exactly what your triggers may be – Dentists? New schools? Strangers? The dark? Yep, all normal. In fact if you don’t have it… why not??
The conversation regarding mental health certainly has changed in the last twenty years – and mostly for the better. We are moving towards a compassionate society of understanding for those that are unfortunate enough to be inflicted with mental health difficulties. As a psychologist I applaud our acceptance of those that are different and believe that we still have work to do to ensure that the message is loud and clear – seeking help in times of need is not a weakness. But when it comes to our children when does mental health awareness become too much?
I regularly see children who identify with being “anxious”. They can range from exam-stressed teenagers down to preschoolers and I cringe when I increasingly see them announce their diagnosis before they have even had a seat on my couch. I recently had a 14 year old describe having feelings of being “left out” because the rest of her school peer group identified as having some kind of mental health issue and she did not. Poor mental health is not normal. It should never be normal – what an awful world that would be. Accepted and supported, yes. But not the norm.
So it is a fine balance between the benefits of freely accepting and talking about crippling conditions such as depression and anxiety, and having it so prominent that it creates a culture of labelling normal ranges of human emotion as a mental illness. As I tell children and their families, you are supposed to feel nerves on the first day of school, stress during exam period and sadness during normal peer conflict – it means you are alive and are human. Mislabelling these emotions as mental illness may serve to ignore the great resilience and problem solving ability humans have for overcoming adversity within themselves.