One in five children in America are believed to have a mental health disorder. The reluctance to talk openly about it because of the stigma against such disorders can be the very thing standing in the way of treatment.
KERA’s Sam Baker talked about ways to end the stigma with Dr. Nicholas Westers, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health and an associate professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Examples Of Mental Health Stigma
At the core of stigma is the sense that someone is different than us. And that difference is negative in some way. And so it separates us versus them. And it's sometimes conscious, but very often unconscious.
If you have caught yourself thinking or saying, 'Oh, that person, it's just all in their head,' 'I struggled with sadness or depression before and I turned out okay. I never missed work or I never missed school' or 'I was able to force myself to get out of bed,' that's actually an example of stigma.
Another is if our first inclination when we see mass shootings is that that person is crazy or has a mental health disorder. We know from research that individuals with mental health disorders are no more likely to commit acts of violence, particularly with firearms than anyone else.
When we make those kinds of comments, anyone struggling with mental health may not want to seek help anymore, because then you're going to be thought of as someone that's violent or that's making this all up in their head or that they're hopeless or that they start to internalize that stigma. And ultimately that keeps people from getting the help that they need.
Educate Yourself And Your Children About Mental Health
I do see adults having and perpetuating stigmas related to mental health, but children and adolescents often base their own assumptions about mental health and mental health disorders on their parents' assumptions. And so an empathic and validating stance from parents and caregivers could be, for their child, the difference between suffering alone and seeking help if they experienced a mental health disorder now, or even in the future.
Explaining Mental Health As A Continuum
We've all had our bad days where it's tough to get out of bed or our energy levels are down for consecutive days, or we have negative thoughts about ourselves, other people, the world, the future. These are actually common symptoms of depression. We're not all that far away from struggles of those that have diagnosed mental health disorders. That understanding can decrease that barrier of this us-versus-them mentality where they're different than me.
Show Solidarity With Others
If we are different in some way, it doesn't have to be negative. I may not necessarily know all that you're experiencing, but I stand with you. Let me walk you to, if it's an adolescent for instance, the school counselor so we can get you the help. You have different struggles than me, but that doesn't mean that those struggles are to be judged negatively.