In the mid 1990s, I went to a conference held by the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health and heard for the first time about children’s mental health awareness week. A group of parents from Missouri had come together and decided that the best thing they could do for their children was to work on stigma. They thought that stigma was as large a barrier for parents whose children had mental health challenges as access or lack of effective treatments. It probably still is.
One of the reasons I was so drawn to this new campaign called children’s mental health awareness week was that my son and I had had our own jarring experience with stigma. When Matthew was 7, he had his first hospitalization. It was preceded by months of being withdrawn, often unable to leave the house and ultimately an attempt at suicide. When he came home, he went around the neighborhood to his friends’ houses and announced, “I was in the psychiatric hospital but now I’m better so I came home.” Most parents responded, “That’s nice, Matthew.”
One mother, however, immediately called me. She said she no longer wanted my son to play with her daughter (who had been one of his close friends) and further, she didn’t even want him to come onto her property. I was stunned, hurt and bewildered. I was sure this wouldn’t have happened if he had been hospitalized for almost anything else.
Current studies show that human brains prefer data that support what we already believe. A 2007 study by researchers from Indiana University, University of Virginia and Columbia University shows that Americans believe that children with depression are likely to be violent. In the same study, 82% felt that doctors were overmedicating children and 56% felt medication prevented families from working out their problems. An additional 45% believed that rejection at school is a likely consequence of getting treatment.
Parents are experts at determining risk-benefit ratios. While we are all committed to standing up for our children and fighting stereotypes about children with mental health needs, we also know that stigma still packs a powerful wallop and can be deeply rooted in society’s beliefs. One mother commented recently, “Sometimes the stigma can be worse than the illness.” As many as 79% of families whose children have mental health needs avoid seeking treatment for their children due to stigma.
That’s why we need children’s mental health awareness week. We need to educate people about what works to displace what they “think” they know. We need to call them on their ignorance and replace their beliefs with new ones. We need to show support for children, youth and families who are seeking the care they need to counter public opinions on treatment. Most of all, we need to say that stigma is socially unacceptable. Stigma diminishes all of us — it lessens our possibilities, narrows how we view health and limits our future.
In America, we fund treatment and research for people with illnesses who we see as most similar to ourselves. Nearly everyone has a relative who is a cancer survivor and is willing to say so. Many people have family members and friends whose children have mental health needs, but stay silent. Awareness week is a chance for all of us to speak up and speak out.