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Carson Daly: How I talk to my children about mental health

The TODAY co-host wants his kids to grow up in a world where seeing a therapist and prioritizing your mental health is not only accepted, but praised.

This Father’s Day (and always), TODAY's Carson Daly is talking about mental health.

A generation ago, mental health just wasn't talked about — especially among men. As an outspoken advocate for mental wellness who’s been candid about his own personal struggles, Carson knows why it's so important to be open as a father. Here’s what he had to say about how he approaches talking about mental health — his own and others’ — with his family.

My kids are young — they're 6, 8, 12 and Goldie is 15 months. When they're young, you have an opportunity to frame the conversation of mental health any way you want, because you're a parent and your kids listen to you. The key for me is to do it now, and do it often.

This is how we frame it: When my kids go to get checkups at the doctor, when they go to the nurse at school if they don't feel good — that's your physical health. Then, there's also your mental health. That's your feelings. Are you monitoring when someone says something to you and how it makes you feel? Are you feeling scared in moments that you don't think you should be? Are you happy? Are you communicating those things with your mom and dad? All those thoughts that happen in your brain, that's your mental health, and it's equally as important as your physical health.

My oldest daughter is talking to somebody. We say, "There's a doctor for your body and there's a doctor for your mind." She's like, "Oh, cool, I'm going to go see this doctor and talk to him about the nightmares I'm having or the way I'm feeling."

We say (to our kids), 'There's a doctor for your body and there's a doctor for your mind.'

Carson Daly

If either of my parents was around today and I said, "Oh, my daughter is in therapy," the first thing they would say is, "What's wrong with her?"

That's what our parents did, right? And it should be, "Oh, awesome." If I said, "She's reading a little slow, so she's getting extra help reading," their response would be, "Oh, great." If I said, "She had a 100-degree fever but she's with the doctor and got some Tylenol," their response would be, "Oh, great."

That's the place we're trying to get to with mental health. So when someone says, "I'm talking to somebody," we say, "Oh, great. Let me know if you need anything. I'm here."

The idea is that when the kids grow up, when they're in high school or in college or they're young adults, this is all they've ever known: If something is going on in your brain, you talk to somebody. You communicate your thoughts the same way you would if something was happening with your body.

In my experience, parents have a really hard time deciphering between what is teenage behavior or having a sort of “blah” day — sleeping in until one o’clock on a Saturday, talking back, withdrawing a little bit — and what may be a red flag for mental health. I think it helps to remember that when parents are having issues with the kids related to mental health, that isn’t a reflection of their parenting. I can imagine a lot of parents don’t want to broach this topic because they’re fearful that to their peers, to their communities, it will come off as though they’ve done something wrong or raised their kid wrong. And I don't believe that’s true.

Whatever your kid is feeling, it needs to be heard. Parents need to be observant and know those telltale signs. There are answers out there and I would encourage parents to do the research. Don't run away from the topic. Dive in headfirst and educate yourself.

Keep in mind, I'm not a mental health or an expert in anyone else's kids. This is just what has worked for me as a father and someone who cares a lot about mental health.

With my friends and my peers, there is the process of breaking the stigma of mental health. I have generalized anxiety disorder. I've been diagnosed with panic disorder. I do cognitive behavioral therapy. People are like, "Are you OK?" I'm like, "Yeah, of course I'm OK. The same way you go to the gym and have a trainer to try and lose 10 pounds, I do work for my mind.” This is just a part of who I am and it’s a part of my daily self-care. I think when you say that you’re in therapy, people feel empathy for you, and I don’t want that. That’s not what I’m looking for. There’s nothing wrong with me.

We're still in that phase of, 'You're either crazy or you're normal.' And that's just old thinking.

Carson Daly

We're still in that phase of, "You're either crazy or you're normal." And that's just old thinking. It's not so black and white. Everybody is going through something, and it's OK to not feel OK 100% of the time.

There are days when I'm more anxious than others — when my schedule gets really full and I have lots of traveling, and it means little sleep. My mind starts racing and I start to spiral a little bit. I run hot. My endocrine system is like a Ferrari, and I have to manage how to drive it. I might say to my wife, Siri, "I'm running hot today," and she knows exactly what that means. And it doesn't mean anything alarming. It just means that if I disappear for 20 minutes, I might be meditating downstairs or taking a walk. We communicate that way. She has her own things that she works through that she articulates to me. We just talk about our mental health like we do anything else.

There should be a chain of gyms for your brain where you can have a membership and walk in and maybe you're going to talk to somebody, maybe you're going to play some meditation games, maybe you're going to take a wellness course where someone talks about muscle tension relaxation tips. I hope that one day we put the same emphasis on the way we look on the way we feel, mentally.

I hope we get to a place where not only will people be accepting when you say, “Hey, I need some help,” but people will applaud you. If I'm an employer and my employee takes a month off and needs to work on himself, I'm going to stick with my employee. I hired them for their skill set and now they're working on their mind. That’s great. They're going to come back sharper, a better person, a better employee. That's how we have to start looking at mental health.

If we don’t, millions more will suffer in silence. That's what I did. And ultimately lives will be wasted. That's the saddest part.

The most important thing for me is that my kids see from my example that if there is something I can't control, I get help. My kids have seen the work I've put in with being open about my own mental state and also mental health in general. They walk and in and I'm Zoom-ing somebody and they say, "Oh, Daddy, what are you doing?" And I say, "I'm talking to this football player about mental health." They know what that means. And I love that I have that opportunity to teach them that.

As told to Rheana Murray.

This interview has been edited and condensed.