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Create a safe, open family environment to talk about mental health

Ben Brafman, LMC, CAP CEO/Founder and Clinical Director The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, Destination Hope: The Women’s Program

As we see more and more news reports connecting mental health, depression, suicide, and violence, it can be easy for misconceptions to develop. This is especially true with children. By addressing these topics as a family, you can foster open communication and create a safe space where your family members can share their feelings. And when family members are able to share their feelings without being embarrassed, they are more apt to seek out treatment and get better.


Do check in regularly

Wondering how your son, daughter, spouse, or sibling has been doing lately? Ask them. Make it a point to check in with your family members and ask how they’re feeling. When they talk, listen without judgement and offer support when needed. It may seem like a small gesture to ask how someone is, but it can go a long way in fostering open communication.

Do talk about current events

Media reports on tragic events such as school shootings or other violent incidents can affect us all more deeply than we realize. Talk about the subject with your family, using age-appropriate language for your children as needed. Children of all ages may have questions about what they’ve seen and heard, but may not always feel comfortable asking them. Keep an open dialogue about things so that your family is able to talk about current events together.

Do make a clear distinction between mental illness and violence

Whether or not you have experienced mental illness in your family, it’s likely that you or a family member will be affected by it in some way. It could be someone you know at work, a neighbor, or a classmate; this makes it important to talk to your children about what mental illness means. Mental health and violence are too often lumped together to the point where it seems like they are implicitly linked. This can lead to stigma, where people believe that mentally ill people are violent by default, which isn’t the case.

Do get professional help as needed

Sometimes an issue cannot be resolved in a healthy way within the family. When this happens, remember that it’s always okay to seek help from a professional. Consider family therapy or one-on-one counseling. This can help you get to the root of the problem and work through it together. You may find that your child appears traumatized after hearing about a violent event in the media; this is normal, and counseling can help them.

Do share a meal together

In today’s world of smartphones and tablets, family conversations can suffer. Family members may turn to the Internet to seek answers to their questions, rather than talking about things together and having real interactions. Set a goal to have a meal together once a day, once a week, or whatever is realistic for your situation. Use that time to interact with each other, not devices.


Do not protect your kids from the facts

As a parent, your inclination may be to protect your children by shielding them from news of the latest school shooting. While your intentions are good, they may backfire. Remember that your kids are likely to hear the news from a friend, on the television, online, or in passing. Address the issue with them on their level. Encourage questions; violence can be a scary topic for kids (and parents!) so talking about what happened and what they might do in a similar situation can help resolve some of the fear.

Do not make threats

You may be tempted to tell your child what they shouldn’t do if they are feeling bullied or lonely: i.e., “Don’t ever turn to guns!” Instead of telling them what they shouldn’t do, use positive reinforcement to offer ideas about what they can do. Encourage them to see a counselor or talk to you when they are feeling down. Even if your child doesn’t seem enthusiastic about the idea, it’s important for them to know that you are available to listen.

Do not dismiss feelings

Your spouse may seem unusually affected by an event in the media. Perhaps they can’t get it off their mind or keep circling back to it in conversation. Avoid telling them to forget about it, because that can trivialize or invalidate their feelings. Listen to their concerns, don’t dismiss them.

Do not associate ‘crazy’ with ‘mental illness’

The word ‘crazy’ can be a dangerous one, because it is laden with stigma in terms of mental health. People are bound to refer to gunmen and other violent criminals as ‘crazy,’ but have a family conversation about what it means to be crazy and what it means to be mentally ill. Talk about how these two things are not the same, and mental illness is something that very rarely leads to violence.

Do not ignore warning signs

Children can internalize things for a long time before we realize something is wrong. This goes for all manner of issues, from trauma as a result of a media story, or depression from being mistreated at school. Pay attention to your family member’s behavior and gently address any causes for concern, such as increased anxiety or isolation.

Jumping cartoon

You don’t have to be directly involved with a traumatic event to be deeply affected by it. In your family, it can be very beneficial to maintain open conversations about what you see in the news. Pay attention to each other and listen when someone needs to talk. Make it clear that you’re always there to offer support, and no question is off limits. The simple question “How are you?” can be very powerful.

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Photo Credits: Andy Dean Photography/; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Ben Brafman, LMC, CAPCEO/Founder and Clinical Director

Ben Brafman, LMHC, CAP, is the Clinical Director, President and CEO of Destination Hope, a nationally recognized substance abuse and dual diagnosis treatment facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With more than two decades of hands-on experience...

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