Stigma victimizes the victims
“Misconceptions based on perception rather than fact have been shown to be devastating to children’s emotional and social well-being.”
–Dr. Bernice Pescosolido
Stigma, blame, judgment… It only takes a few individuals to harm a child or family with their words, but it takes a whole society to allow it. In this article, I’m going to present recent research on the negative stereotyping of families and children with mental disorders, and share stories from families I know. I hope readers will be empowered to speak out against this form of prejudice and mobilized into changing our society’s attitudes.
Stigma takes many forms.
The most common scenario of stigma is when you are seen as a bad parent, perhaps even an abusive one, or your child is seen as stupid, spoiled, attention-getting, or manipulative. Another form of stigma is having others show disrespect to parents who seek help from the mental health profession. Psychologists are “flakes,” and families who see them are “wackos.” “Where’s your faith?”, some say, or “why don’t you quit making excuses for your child and give them real consequences?”
One of the more destructive forms of stigma is the condemnation parents receive when they “drug their child to fix them.” Too many believe drugs turn children into “zombies” (see research study below). Because of the stigma of treatment, I’ve seen many parents try every alternative treatment possible to help their child, only to have their child struggle year after year in school, fall farther behind their peers, make no progress in therapy, and other setbacks that medicines can prevent. These parents cling to the belief that they are doing the right thing, yet some children really need medicines, and the drugs don’t turn them into zombies. [In today’s treatment approaches, drugs are always considered a piece of the treatment puzzle, never the complete answer.]
A mother’s story about her experience with stigmatization:
This mother lost her best friend of 20 years because the friend got tired of hearing the mom talk about her very troubled 10-year-old son. In frustration, the friend wrote her a letter saying the mom was neurotic, and that she should quit trying to control her son, that her son’s behavior was a cry for help. The friend said she needed to set her son free and get help for her emotional problems, and that she wasn’t going to “enable” this mom anymore by being her friend. The mom was stunned and hurt by the letter. She intellectualized that she didn’t need a friend like this, but her heart was nonetheless broken by the betrayal. The son turned out to have brain damage from a genetic disorder and it was getting worse.
Ideas for what you can do when you’re blamed and judged.
First, resist defending yourself; it can attract more unwanted attention and disagreement. You don’t have the time or emotional energy to explain or teach someone who will challenge everything you say. Do everything you can to avoid people like this—many have had to cut off some family members and friends, and even their clergy or religious communities.
My story: when my child was diagnosed with a serious mental disorder, I stood up in front of my church congregation, explained what was happening, and asked for prayers for my family. At the end of that service, people started avoiding me. There were no more hello’s. There wasn’t even eye contact. The abrupt isolation from people I knew was devastating and I stopped attending. What did I say? Why did this happen? I thought if my child had a ‘socially acceptable’ cancer others would know what to do or say to ease the isolation and grief.
Second, actively seek supportive people who just listen. You need as large as possible a network of compassionate people around you. You may be surprised how many people have a loved one with a mental or emotional disorder, and how many are willing to help because they completely understand what you’re going through.
Third, politely and assertively say thanks but no thanks. Try something like this: “Thanks for showing interest, but we are getting the help we need from doctors we trust.” Or simply, “please don’t offer me advice I didn’t ask for.” No apologies.
It’s hard enough to be reminded over and over again how our children don’t fit in, and how we may never get have the same joys as parents of mentally healthy children.
Public Perceptions Harsh of Kids, Mental Health (excerpt)
May 1, 2007 (USA TODAY)
Though the subject has been analyzed in adults, until now there has been limited research illuminating how the public perceives children with mental disorders such as depression and attention deficit disorders, according to experts from Indiana University, the University of Virginia and Columbia University. The findings are published in the May 2007 issue of Psychiatric Services.
The study, based on in-person interviews with more than 1,300 adults, indicates that people are highly skeptical about the use of psychiatric medications in children. Results also show that Americans believe children with depression are more prone to violence and that if a child receives help for a mental disorder, rejection at school is likely.
“The results show that people believe children will be affected negatively if they receive treatment for mental health problems,” says study author Bernice Pescosolido, director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research, in Bloomington. “Nothing could be further from the truth. These misconceptions are a serious impediment to the welfare of these children.”
According to the study:
- Those interviewed believed that doctors over-medicate children with depression and ADHD and that drugs have long-term harm on a child’s development. More than half believed that psychiatric medications “turn kids into zombies.”
- Respondents thought children with depression would be dangerous to others; 31% believed children with ADHD would pose a danger.
- Respondents said rejection at school is likely if a child goes for treatment, and 43% believe that the stigma associated with seeking treatment would follow them into adulthood.
Pescosolido and her colleagues say such stigma surrounding mental illness — misconceptions based on perception rather than fact — have been shown to be devastating to children’s emotional and social well-being.
Population studies show that, at any point in time, 10% to 15% of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression. About 4 million children, or 6.5%, have been diagnosed with ADHD, only 2% less than the number of children with asthma.
“People really need to understand that these are not rare conditions,” says Patricia Quinn, a developmental pediatrician in Washington, D.C.
To banish the stigma linked to mental health problems in children, the public has to get past labels and misconceptions, Pescosolido says. Normalizing these conditions would help too, Quinn says. “We need to view depression and ADHD like we do allergies,” she says. “They are very treatable.”