More and more, people push for discussing mental health with children and to include education on mental health, mental wellness, and mental illness in the classroom and outside of it (Where is Mental Illness Education?). I wholeheartedly agree with this idea because it has the potential help children recognize mental health trouble in themselves and in others, and to know there is something that can be done if they’re struggling. Another big reason for the push is the aim to reduce stigma, but I can’t think of an instance in which it was said there should be lessons about stigma, too. Discussing mental health stigma is just as important as talking about mental illness.
Discussing Mental Health Stigma Can Help Us Identify It
Growing up in the ‘90s and early 2000s, discussions of mental illness with children and in the classroom, so far as I know, wasn’t even thought of, let alone done. Having lived with mental illness since an early age, though, I know that this is something I would have largely benefited from because I might have been able to identify the things that made me a “freak” (Mental Illness in Children: Types, Symptoms, Treatment).
I also know I would have benefited from learning about mental illness stigma. It would have allowed me to recognize that people treated me the way they did because of stigmatized ideas of my reality, in particular, with excoriation (skin-picking) disorder and anxiety. If I had been told that stigma is just as real as the illnesses I struggled with, I would have better understood the way I was being treated by my peers and the adults in my life was not a reflection of an inherent flaw within me, but rather sheer ignorance and a lack of understanding on their part. I might not have internalized the negative interactions with them, which only compounded with the negative dialogue already stuck on repeat in my head.
Discussing Mental Health Stigma Will Teach Three Lessons
- How to recognize mental health stigma and self-stigma: By having discussions about both mental illness and stigma, children would be able to learn what the realities of mental illness are and how negative reactions, behaviours, or thoughts from others and themselves can be stigmatizing (Stigma and Discrimination: The Effect of Stigma).
- The difference between bullying and mental health stigma: I have a feeling some might want to lump the two together, but they’re really not the same. While both come from a place of ignorance, stigma is often unintentional and thereby not typically malicious. Bullying, I feel, is intentional maliciousness. Both are absolutely damaging, but differentiating be the two is necessary.
- How to cope with mental health stigma: One of the most difficult lessons to learn on our own is how to cope with the stigma we face. It took me years before I could even begin to stop letting it affect me. In my case, acceptance of my mental illnesses and self-education have been key in that, but there are probably other strategies to employ, too.
Can Discussing Mental Health and Stigma Start too Young?
I’ve heard people debate about this kind of thing and get bent out of shape when someone suggests an age they think is “too young.” For me, coming from a place of having dealt with mental illness since I was roughly five years old, there is no “too young.” Instead it would just be a matter of tailoring whatever curriculum or strategies a school board or parent come up with to deliver the message in a way that can be understood at different age levels. This is by no means an easy task, but one that I still think is necessary.
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