Whoever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” probably didn’t struggle with a debilitating mental illness and the stigma that goes along with it.
According to data from the CDC, 13% of children, ages 8-15 have a diagnosable mental illness.1 The National Institute of Mental Health states, “Just over 20 percent (or 1 in 5) children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.”2
Like a shadow at solar noon, the stigma of mental illness follows children (and adults) everywhere acting as a barrier to seeking diagnosis and care.
If your child or a child in your classroom struggles with mental illness, there are things you can do now to ease the stigma and help them on the path to acceptance and healing.
Dr. Pescosolido initiated the first national study (in over 40 years) of the stigma in mental illness, and recently, with other researchers, published a study on mental health stigmas and children.3
What is a stigma?
According to Dr. Pescosolido, a stigma is a “mark of shame,” a quality or characteristic that causes a person to be devalued by society.
“In the case of children with mental illness,” Dr. Pescosolido says, “the more intimate the venue, the higher the level of rejection.”
“What this means,” she explains, “is that people think: A child with mental illness can be in my kid’s classroom, or on my kid’s sport’s team, but I don’t want my child going to that kid’s house, or being friends with “that kid. He’s weird.”
It’s the overt and covert shaming, the rejection that cuts deeply into the hearts and psyches of children who, because of their challenges with mental illness, are already hurting.
Example of a stigma
I recently interviewed the mother of a child diagnosed with an emotional behavioral disorder. The young boy also struggled with mental illness.
The mother shared, “My son does not have a “cute” disability. The kind that makes people want to rally around you and offer love and emotional support.”
“My son has a mental illness. His behaviors are odd at best, violent at worst, and usually fall somewhere in between. He struggles with anxiety and I am anxious about how he and I are perceived in the community.”
“There are no warm and fuzzy commercials depicting children with mental health challenges. Teachers, even those with special education degrees, are not quite sure how to handle him.”
“Children are leery of him, and the other parents…they just look at me with pity, fear, or a combination of both. I know they will be glad when their child isn’t in the classroom with my son. They don’t say anything to me, but they don’t have to. It’s there.”
Mental Health Stigma.
The often invisible but very tangible disdain for a child, or a person, who is different.
Considered less than.
Deemed somewhat unworthy.
Almost always present with a diagnosis of mental illness.
I shared this mom’s story with Dr. Pescosolido.
“Cute little bald-headed kids in red wagons raise money,” says Dr. Pescosolido. “In the United States the percentage of children with cancer is something like .01%, but the number of children with mental health issues is hovering around 20%.”
“Kids with mental health challenges are excluded. Isolated. Stigma is a mark that leads to negative remarks. It’s no different from racial prejudice or gender discrimination.”
Dr. Pescosolido continued, “Put three people in a room. Look to your left, look to the right. One of those three people will have a mental health challenge in their lifetime. The other two people in the room will know someone with mental health challenges. That’s half the population.”
To be clear, this article is not about comparing childhood illnesses, their impact, or severity. In fact, many children with serious physical illnesses struggle with anxiety regarding their diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.
As Dr. Pescosolido says, “The real problem is the stigma, the lack of education about mental illness and a lack of tools to help children.”
The goal of this article is to explain mental health stigma and offer proactive ways to reduce its power over children.
How To Help Children with Mental Health Stigma
1. Educate Your Child
Educating your child about her anxiety or mental illness is a crucial first step. Nothing causes more anxiety for an already anxious child than feeling that something is wrong with her, and not knowing what’s wrong.
“I had serious anxiety as a child,” Dr. Pescosolido shared. “I would spend many mornings in third grade throwing up. I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. My life would have been better if someone would have told me I had anxiety. I could have learned to cope.”
Helping a child verbalize what they have internalized is a starting point. Give children words to describe what they are feeling.
Simply saying, “You are anxious. It can give you feelings like (describe your child’s symptoms) and make your brain feel like (describe your child’s symptoms), and while it is scary, it isn’t dangerous. We can work together to find ways to help you feel better.”
Teece Nowell, MS, LCPC, BCPC, a mental health practitioner specializing in children and their families in West River, Maryland says, “I talk with the kids and the parents about everyone being unique and individual.”
“We all have parts of us that are different. Some are more serious or difficult than others, but no one is better or lesser than another.”
2. Educate Your Family and Your Child’s Social Community
After your child has an understanding of his diagnosis and an ability to engage in a conversation about it, you need to explain his challenges to the other children in the family, members of the extended family, and to your child’s school and social community.
Your child’s social community includes but isn’t limited to his school, place of worship, sport’s teams, and places where he participates in any activity: scouts, drama, art, music.
No one is advocating for a blanket post about your child’s diagnosis on your social media account of choice. Communicate in a way that respects your child and possibly what he is comfortable having you share.
Gently giving what information is needed, to those who need it, when they need it, is a good starting point in sharing with others.
Sarah is an East Coast sales representative for a technology firm and the mom of Samantha, age 8, who has anxiety disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder NOS, a form of autism.
I asked Sarah how she advocates for her daughter.
“I share Samantha’s conditions with her teachers, the mothers of her close friends, and those in my family who are supportive, “says Sarah.
“It’s more like I teach them about PDD-NOS and about anxiety disorder,” Sarah continues. “It’s about giving them factual information about her condition and what they can do to help her.”
“When people have facts it is less of a mystery and they feel that they can help make a difference in her life. I give them tools they can use. And schools need to hear from parents. Even the special education teachers are grateful for the input. It’s a team effort.”
“Some extended family members are judgmental and not always kind. I try to educate them the best I can, and then I let it go. Samantha used to be shy about her struggles, but with her classroom teacher’s support and good friends, she is doing much better.”
“I use discretion,” Sarah says. “Obviously I don’t discuss her therapy appointments, what medications she’s on, that sort of thing.”
“I just share general information to help them understand Sam’s challenges and ways they can be supportive. Anything else is really no one else’s business.”
That’s good advice.
Dr. Pescosolido agrees, “Many college students are very open to disclosing their mental and physical illnesses. I advise them that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, but wait for the right time, a safe space and a safe person to share your story with.”
Sharing the challenge is important, when the time is right.
“Parents need to stand back and ask themselves how much stigma they are engaged in by not sharing mental health challenges.”
By hiding something, you often send the message that it needs to be hidden.
Teece says, “If the parent doesn’t stigmatize the child early in development, they won’t know to do it to themselves.”
Adults can model how to treat others with respect and kindness in their daily lives.
Dr. Pescosolido says, “Children, by their very nature, are usually kind. If teachers in younger classrooms are modeling support and tolerance of all, the children in the classroom will model that behavior.”
“Some elementary schools are doing a good job with this. There are schools with a Best Buddies program to help develop friendships between typically developing children and those with developmental or other disabilities.”
“If you can model appropriate ways to treat others, starting at a young age, children will become more tolerant. I think schools need to provide information and services at younger and younger levels. Children are often very open. Oftentimes parents are not.”
Parents need to advocate for their child while teaching the child how to be an advocate for themselves.
“This can be hard for children,” says Dr. Pescosolido, “but it is necessary. Kids have to know what their rights are and how to be an advocate for themselves. Teach them limits, boundaries and what they can and cannot do.”
If you aren’t familiar with how to be an advocate for your child, a good place to start is on the Wrightslaw website.
This website is one of the best places for information about special education law and advocacy for children with mental and physical disabilities.
The Wrightslaw website offers books, training materials, a newsletter, a blog, and just about anything you could want or need to know about special education law. It is a great starting point, and often ending point to give you the resources you need to support your child’s education.
The more you learn about being an advocate for your child, the better you can teach her how to be an advocate for herself. An important skill to have for life, and not one that is limited to mental health challenges.
Oftentimes by sharing our personal struggles we become someone else’s hero, inspiring them to embrace and accept their challenges and live better lives.
That’s the premise behind Bring Change to Mind, a nonprofit organization started by actor Glenn Close to help end the stigma of mental illness.
Dr. Bernice Pescosolido is a member of their Board.
“Our mission at Bring Change to Mind is to educate…to give others the facts about mental illness. That reduces stigma. There are so many myths and misconceptions about mental illness, and that can be a barrier to getting help for yourself or your child.”
“Through our resources, blog, PSA’s, videos and stories, we are making a difference in the way people see and treat those with mental illness and the way those who struggle with it see themselves. We are an organization based on scientific research.”
“Bring Change to Mind is very active at the college and high school level. Our hope is to get programs for younger children as well.
You can empower your child to understand her mental health challenges, get her support and treatment, and help her live a life filled with joy and success.
As Teece concludes, “The only thing that holds us back is fear, and if we focus and believe, we can overcome fear. Remember, every person in this world is struggling, in some way. That’s what being human is all about.”
“Don’t let your diagnosis define who you are.”
Dr. Pescosolido agrees, “Stigma is about power. About people trying to exert power over you by making you feel less than.”
“You can help your child banish mental health stigma by helping them realize that everyone has something. Don’t assume that everyone else is functioning at 100 percent. Everyone has something, even if you don’t see it.”
By educating yourself and your child, you help him gain control over his mental health challenge. You can then model, advocate, inspire and empower your child and those around him to stand up for those who struggle with mental health challenges.
These are great ways to defeat mental health stigma and give dignity and respect to those, young and old, with mental health challenges.
3Pescosolido, Bernice A., Peter S. Jensen, Jack K. Martin, Brea L. Perry, Sigrun Olafsdottir, and Danielle Fettes. “Public Knowledge and Assessment of Child Mental Health Problems: Findings From the National Stigma Study-Children.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 47.3 (2008): 339-49. Web.