How can you stop a mental disorder before it starts?
1. Create a “tree” of your family mental health history going back three generations, and record all known or suspected mental disorders and addictions. If relatives baulk at your digging into the past, point out that it’s for the safety of your children, and future grandchildren. Use the US Surgeon General’s online form for recording and storing your family mental health (and medical) history. Give it to your pediatrician or mental health practitioner the next time you see her.
2. Strongly consider your mental and emotional health before and during pregnancy. If you are currently on an antidepressant, talk to a mental health professional before making a decision about whether to stay on it during pregnancy. Medication may pose fewer risks to your child than would your severe depression.
3. Learn about environmental agents that may cause miscarriages, birth defects, or developmental problems later in childhood. The source may be a disease such as chickenpox, a prescription drug, or a household chemical. A good web resource for the latest information is the March of Dimes.
4. Take Paternal Risk Factors into Account. Children of men over fifty are at a higher risk for schizophrenia and autism. Men’s drinking and drug abuse are associated with their wives’ problem pregnancies.
5. Treat Yourself First. Think of your actions as an act of prevention for your child’s mental health. Recent research from Columbia University demonstrated that by treating a mother for depression her depressed or anxious child’s symptoms dramatically improved—without direct treatment! If you don’t have private health insurance, go to your county public mental health clinic. It’s that important.
6. Monitor Your Child’s Behavior for Early Symptoms Most adult mental disorders start before the age of fourteen. If there is a high density of any single mental illness among your relatives, learn about its early signs; for example, social withdrawal for depression, or extreme anger and aggression for conduct disorder, which can predict adolescent psychosis. Bring a child for a mental health evaluation as soon as symptoms linger for a month or more. Especially if there’s a family mental health history of depression, or a possible suicide, use any means necessary to stop your teenager’s use of marijuana, as it can trigger psychosis.
7. Talk About Thoughts and Feelings - As soon as your child begins to recognize her own thoughts and feelings and those of others, start an age-appropriate conversation about how emotions and minds work. Compare the spectrum of possible feelings and thoughts to the colors of a rainbow. This “normalization” of differences makes it more likely that your child will confide any future psychological problems to you and be less inclined to stigmatize others.
8. Have Zero Tolerance towards Bullying - Even if your child begs you not to make a fuss, understand that the potential psychological damage (including suicide) for him or her if the abuse continues is far worse than any temporary embarrassment.
9. Make Self Esteem a Family Priority - Self-esteem has gotten a bad rap because it’s been confused with having a false sense of one’s abilities. True self-esteem enables emotional resiliency, which gets severely tested around early parent-child separations and in the tween years. Renew your commitment to family dinners, give everyone a role, teach teamwork.
10. Build up your Family, Community and Online Support System. Social isolation isn’t good for parents or children.
With this foundation, you’re in the running for happiness in 2012 or any other year ahead.
This list is drawn from my upcoming book of memoir and science reporting, A Lethal Inheritance, A Mother Uncovers the Science Behind Three Generations of Mental Illness,
In this book, which Andrew Solomon called “lucid” and “invaluable” I look first at the causes and risks for mental disorders and then I share the good news I’ve discovered about recovery and prevention. Available Jan/2012 from Prometheus Books and booksellers everywhere.