When I was a child dealing with mental health stigma, I didn’t really know what it was that set me apart. As a young adult, I have a better perspective on the mental health stigma your child faces. Although I’m not a parent or guardian of a child facing mental health stigma, I have a clear memory of how stigma affected me as a child. Plus, I’ve seen what my parents have gone through as I lived with mental illness at a young age. I also read posts and hear from parents and guardians who have children that suffer or live with mental health problems and it’s heartbreaking to witness as they grapple with trying to help their child and feeling powerless to do so. So when I can, I try to help. I hope some of the tips that follow are ones you find helpful as you navigate your child’s mental illness and the potential mental health stigma your child can face.
Parents and guardians (I’m going to refer to you all as parents from here on out), when I say child, I have a dependent, minor children in mind, although you could employ many of these tactics no matter how old your children are.
How Mental Health Stigma Affects Your Child
Stigma can be a scary thing for children, especially if they’re at an age where they don’t really understand what it is. Feeling made fun of or like a freak because of your mental illness and how it affects you or being inexplicably ostracized by your peers causes intense inner chaos and profound loneliness–at least, it did for me. I personally used to feel like scum and a disease because of the way I was treated and that was before I understood what stigma was. It was even before I understood what I was going through with anxiety, excoriation (skin-picking) disorder, and depression, so that made it even tougher to deal with.
From this admittedly vague description above, you might jump to think I was bullied, but I feel bullying as a term describes a more intentional act and, in many cases, I don’t think my peers were intending to bully me, they were just reacting to the way I was. Looking back now, I see their reactions were heavily laced with stigma, which is what I want to focus on rather than the idea of bullying (Stigma and Discrimination: The Effect of Stigma).
To Help Your Child Cope with Mental Health Stigma, Start with Yourself
I don’t mean to say this in an accusatory way, but parents, you first need to make sure you’re not stigmatizing your child yourself. In my experience, parents are experts when it comes to well-intentioned but stigmatizing words and actions that go awry. Sometimes it’s a matter of desperation in wanting to make their child’s suffering go away, sometimes it’s just ignorance. Most of the time, it’s completely unintentional.
My mom (and other members of my family), for instance, really wanted me to stop picking my skin, which makes complete sense. But the way they would go about it was by suggesting I could just stop doing it and by reacting negatively to it, which was both ineffective and shame-inducing.
So, parents, I ask you to consider how your approach to and the language you use when talking about your child’s mental illness might be inadvertently causing more harm than good and how it might be driven by stigma. Take the time to educate yourself thoroughly about your child’s mental illness through consulting a physician or someone experienced in the mental health field, and by consulting only reputable online sources. Tread carefully online and if something seems like a fear-mongering post, it probably is and you need to double check your sources.
By doing this, you can be better armed when it comes to helping your child through their mental health stigma struggles. Having that knowledge will also help keep you from accidentally stigmatizing your child.
In part two, I will go through steps of what you can do for your child to help him or her cope with both self-stigma and external stigma.