As a parent with bipolar disorder I’m probably too focused on my daughter’s mental health. Instead of simply helping her and allowing her to navigate her moods I’m hyper-vigilant — concerned that every sad day followed by an exuberant, joyous exploration is a sign of pathology rather than normal 10-year-old behavior.
It’s a fact that a parent with a mood disorder is nine times more likely to pass the biological traits associated with that disorder to their child than a mentally healthy parent. But that risk is still incredibly small. In preparing our children for positive mental health we, as parents with challenges, need to focus more on environmental threats and less on biological possibilities. Because right now, the environmental threats are huge.
Last month we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an event that forever changed our concepts of community and positive mental health. Following a brief moment of unity we birthed a culture of restricted liberty, nonexistent privacy and conspiracy theories that profoundly shape our lives today.
Children of the early 2000s came of age in a world of unseen threats and insecure futures.
That disruption is eclipsed by our experience in the last two years due to the pandemic, which will surely have profound negative effects on our children’s mental health.
School, which has usually been a place where cultural ideas that keep communities bound and rooted are reinforced, now can’t even be counted on to remain open. And when they are open, our children are taught that physical intimacy such as hugging and holding hands is dangerous and that nonverbal communication such as facial expressions is to be hidden behind masks. We teach kids that their parents and the world they’ve created are racist (we’re white) not because of any inhibitory or discriminatory personal actions but merely because of the color of their skin. We elevate victims over heroes. We celebrate enforced equity over effort. And we place under siege the Judeo-Christian culture which gave the world representative democracy, free speech, human rights, material wealth, the scientific method and the moral equivalence of every individual and replace it with a secular faith that is unforgiving of transgressions and intolerant of curiosity, critical thinking and reasoned opposition.
We elevate victims over heroes. We celebrate enforced equity over effort.
We lecture children about the impossibility of a successful life in a world which lacks opportunity and scare them with the doom of climate change. We no longer celebrate a world in which creative people and entrepreneurs will seize the day and develop solutions to our seemingly intransigent problems.
Instead of fostering the reality of human potential we preach a world of scarcity and failure that can only lead a developing mind to declare “why bother?”
How can we expect well-adjusted children to come out of this? How can we stifle centuries of possibility and cooperation and end up with anything but a generation befallen by mood disorders? When our national mood is negative and insists the future can only be bleak, how can we convince our children that life is worth living at all?
Perhaps my daughter’s generation will rebel and discover faith and capitalism as radical ideas to be explored, studied and implemented. Since so many of the influencers who rail against these ideas as evil claim to be the true arbiters of culture, perhaps a restless, questioning generation will rebell and re-discover tolerance and hard-work and reject the present culturally enforced march toward mediocrity and lack of self-responsibility.
Otherwise our children will languish in mental melancholy normalized as a reasonable response to a dismal future.
My wife and I have the advantage of recognizing early symptoms of mental illness that may appear in our child, and the knowledge of how to deal with them should they occur. But the society that our daughter now finds herself a part of works against us.
I’m still an optimist. I have to be. And I will do whatever I can to instill in my child the esteem of responsibility and effort, the idea that in order to make a good life she has to try. The reality that circumstances may work against her, but the promise that she can overcome setbacks and is largely responsible for most of the good, and bad, things that happen to her.
This is what I have learned after years of suffering with bipolar disorder and now years of successfully managing it. I hope that this crazy world learns as much from its own insanity.
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.