Protecting Children from Mental Health Stigma


We need to be ensure we protect children who live in families with mental health problems, or who suffer from mental health problems themselves, from stigma.  

In spite of famous people talking about their own mental health problems, according to a psychology professor, Patrick Corrigan, stigma is getting worse. This he claims is due to negative reports in the press overriding the limited effect of positive messages spread by actors and royalty talking about their own mental health challenges. For example, shootings in America are often reported in the press in a way that implies that if the perpetrator received better mental health care, the shooting would not have taken place. This type of reporting gives people the impression that all people with a mental health problem can become or have the potential to become violent, when in fact most crime and violent acts are committed by people without mental health problems. Children hear adult’s conversations about mental illness and adults need to make sure that they do not stigmatise mental illness as mental health problems in children have increased dramatically.  One in 20 children were diagnosed with a mental health problem in the UK in 2014 and this had increased dramatically to 1 in 8 by 2018.  Boys were found to be more likely to have a mental health disorder than girls until the age of 11. Between 11 and 16 both sexes were equally likely to have a mental health disorder, but by the time they reached 17 to 19, girls were more than twice as likely to have a disorder. This means that almost one in four girls had a mental disorder.  This spike in mental health problems in girls in the 17 – 19 age group is attributed to social media imposing images of ideal body types on young women and there is a high incidence of body dysmorphia and eating disorders in this group.

Stigma, although NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) prefers the terms prejudice or discrimination to stigma, is not only associated with how people treat you if you are diagnosed with a mental health illness, it is also considered a symptom of mental health problems and can damage the brain, Dr Shrivastava, MD of the University of Ontario states.

Consequences of Stigma can be that there is an increase in the risk of suicide and the client can be more susceptible to a mental health relapse.  The person suffering with a mental illness is more likely to struggle later with accessing employment, housing and even certain medical procedures as even Doctors, even if educated in mental health problems, experience discomfort in dealing with people with a mental health diagnosis and are more likely to discount what these patients say, according to findings by Dr Druss (Emory University).  While at school, children with mental health issues are more likely to experience bullying, cyber-bullying, intense pressure and problems at home.

If it’s a parent who is suffering from mental health issues, then there is a possibility that a child could be exposed to a parent who expresses their psychotic episodes to the child, distorting their reality and placing them at risk of mental health problems themselves. 

Corrigan, a program director for “Honest, Open, Proud”, an organisation that assists people who are considering disclosing their mental health diagnosis and teaching them strategies for disclosure, says that just like the LGBT community, staying in the closet is unhealthy and disclosing your mental health can be good for your health, if managed correctly.  He says there are three methods to reduce stigma: education, protest and contact.  ‘Education’ is limited (think substance abuse, cigarette use),’protest’ he claims is ineffective.  However, ‘contact’ is effective as if we know someone with mental health problems and we are aware they have a mental health problem, we are less likely to stigmatise them, he found.

As a community, we need to be aware of stigma, especially because of the rise in mental health problems in children, and look out for children living with parents with mental health conditions, as well as children living with mental health problems.  We need to educate ourselves about mental health conditions and make contact with people who have a mental health problem to reduce stigma, improve the mental health of the person and to protect the children living in families with mental illness and children living with mental health problems.  This can be achieved by making sure children know the numbers of support organisations such as ChildLine.  Children living with a parent(s) with mental health problems or children with mental health problems can be assigned a mentor at school, so they can talk about issues they are experiencing in a safe way.  Adults need to ensure they do not speak in a way that discriminates against people who live with mental health problems as the children and adults around them could be suffering.

By Charmaine Nicks for JCS@WORK

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