Mental illness stigma in school is a reality. Depending on where you live, school may already be back in session after the summer break or you could be waiting for that first day back to school in early September. Whatever the case, back-to-school can be a tough time for kids with mental illness whether it’s personal challenges of getting through the day or the challenge of dealing with peers. Even if your child really enjoys academics, back-to-school might cause distress. I know it did for me, so I want to offer a few tips for dealing with mental illness stigma in school since that’s what I was often most worried about.
Mental Illness Stigma in School
Kids and teens can face mental illness stigma in a number of ways at school, even if none of them really know what stigma or mental illness is. While youth can be incredibly accepting, they also have the capacity to be exceptionally judgemental and throw around words like “freak” as if they’re nothing. And when they feel like their peer is a freak for any reason, they may ostracize (which is something I faced myself) or mistreat him or her (Discussing Mental Health Stigma With Children Is Important).
Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s teachers or school staff who may be the ones stigmatizing a child for his or her mental illness, which is potentially an even more difficult situation to deal with and may involve going to the school board itself to resolve depending on how bad the situation is.
Four Ways to Cope with Mental Illness Stigma at School
Find adults you trust to help you through tough situations.
I know one of the main reasons I struggled with mental illness and feeling stigmatized in school was because I didn’t have anyone to turn to, so I isolated myself and internalized everything, especially in elementary school. If I had had even one adult — a teacher, the librarian, the principal — I could have turned to, things might not have been so bad. I recommend finding at least two people you can trust to share about what you’re going through though in case someone isn’t able to be there when you need them.
Having your friends is great and their support is definitely valuable, but having an authority figure on your side to help deal with these situations may also be necessary.
Ask your parents to connect with those you trust at school.
Or, if you are a parent, ask your child about who he or she goes to at school. This is part of how a support network is formed because then you can all work together to make sure things are the best they can be in the school environment.
If you’re comfortable doing so, try to educate those who are stigmatizing you.
It can be a super difficult thing to do, but a lot of the time, stigma comes from ingrained misinformation and is entirely unintentional. Taking a moment to explain why someone’s words or actions hurt and substituting with correct information can make a world of difference. Not everyone will be receptive, but there will be those who are.
Know that telling someone about stigma you’re facing doesn’t mean you’re tattling.
Thinking now, I don’t even really know how this became a thing in my own life, but kids are typically afraid of being tattle tales or getting in trouble for speaking out against someone. The thing is, if you legitimately feel you are being wronged or mistreated by your peers for any reason, not just mental illness, you have a right to let someone of authority know about it. Ignoring the situation does not make it go away or solve it.