Ben and I were watching a documentary related to Hitler and World War II. When the show ended Ben asked me what mental illness Hitler had and if he was going to be like him?
We try to shield both kids from the news; yet it is impossible to completely control what they hear and read. Unfortunately, the media has a tendency to link mass killings with mental illness. I did not realize the extent to which Ben internalized this connection.
It is not uncommon for Ben to say with certainty that he will end up incarcerated as an adult.
At age 10, Ben spent six weeks at a therapeutic school for boys between the ages of 10 and 21, some of whom were on probation. The word “juvie”, short for juvenile detention, was thrown around by staff and kids … “If you keep threatening teachers, then you will end up in juvie.” Three years later, the short tenure at this school continues to haunt Ben and influence his thoughts.
When Ben asked me that question, I said that I was not aware of Hitler being diagnosed with any specific mental illness. I asked Ben what prompted the question. His response was like a kick in the gut …
“Mom, everyone that kills people has a mental illness. WE are bad people.”
How could Ben, 13 years of age, see himself in Hitler and other mass murderers? How could he think that he was a bad person because he was born with anxiety, autism, and a mood disorder? How could he not know that he is an incredible human being who is loved by so many? How …
We try hard to celebrate Ben’s many strengths. We recognize his accomplishments, big and small. We tell Ben daily how much we love him and how proud we are of his thoughtfulness and empathy towards others.
I have been purposeful to talk about mental illness like we would a physical illness. I have worked hard to ensure the boys have the words and confidence to tell their story. I have been transparent in our journey in hopes of changing the stigma associated with mental illness within our community.
I never stopped to ask Ben why he thought being incarcerated was his destiny. Instead, I would respond with “no you are not, you are a good person surrounded by people who love and care about you.”
I never thought to purposefully talk about all the good and brilliant people who live with a mental illness and have made this world a better place. Ben knows that he and Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, have a mood disorder in common. And that he and Adam Levine are both diagnosed with ADHD. However, the commonality is more casual in conversation and not intentional to help shape his world view of mental illness.
I never realized Ben had made this connection between criminals and himself due to media coverage. I never stopped to understand his perception and to educate him on the fact that most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3% – 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a severe mental illness.
Yes, I kicked myself for not connecting the dots sooner.
Now I understand why Ben is concerned about being incarcerated. And at times why he adamantly argues that he IS a bad person and does not deserve a family who loves him.
Although both boys have the words to speak with confidence about their struggles with anxiety, a mood disorder, ADHD, etc.; clearly Ben’s sense of self is negatively influenced by his perception of mental illness.
I missed the mark when it comes to mental illness stigma and misconceptions at home.
I am grateful that we watched the documentary on Hitler and that Ben asked the question.
Ben and I have been researching famous historians, artists, inventors, and actors who share some of the same diagnoses. He thinks its pretty cool that he has something in common with Winston Churchill, Vincent van Gogh, and Isaac Newton.
We have been talking about the fact that most everyone struggles with depression, anxiety, or obsessive thoughts at one time in their life.
Most importantly, I continue to look for teachable moments to reinforce that we are not defined by a diagnosis (physical, developmental, or mental); instead, by our choices and how we live our life.
Ben, thank you for asking questions that make me think, reflect, and hopefully be a better parent to two amazing boys who have already made this world a better place due to their unique journey.