Q: [Tweens/Teens] Mental Health month just passed, which is great and so important to get awareness raised in the community. But I feel like a bit of a hypocrite when I am supporting the cause as my teen deals with eating disorder issues, and rather than share it at orientation with her new high school, I feel like it might be better to keep it to ourselves. This just feels like a new start and I don’t want her judged.
A: One of the hurdles that people living with mental illness continue to face is stigma. A child with a mental health condition is all too frequently isolated by negative attitudes, disparaging comments, or even violence, in a way that a person with a physical ailment would never be.
These members of our community are confronted with a range of misconceptions and false beliefs. Among them:
- “People with mental illness can’t handle stress.” To the contrary, with access to proper care and support, they can make contributions that are as invaluable, and maintain relationships that are as strong, as those of anyone else.
- “Mental illness induces dangerous behavior.” In fact, a child with mental illness is four times more likely to be on the receiving end of violence than the general public.
- “They can just snap out of it.” Healing someone of depression, addiction, or an eating disorder is the result of a process, not a spontaneous decision.
One of the consequences of stigma is that kids with mental health issues are likely to encounter discrimination in the community. They may miss out on social activities. A concern equally as serious, if not more so, is that stigmatization frequently keeps kids and their families from seeking care. In an effort to avoid being shamed, or because of self-doubt brought on by shaming, kids with mental illness may hide their reality from family or avoid disclosing their condition to their doctor. Drug abuse, anorexia, bulimia, anxiety, depression—the signs of these and other mental illnesses can often be concealed until a life-threatening incident occurs.
Around 20 percent of Americans experience a mental illness, and the prevalence of mental disorders in our society holds true in Orange County as well. The county has experienced an upward trend in the rate at which children under 18 years are hospitalized for a mental health issue.
We need to help our communities learn to think—and talk—about mental illness as a medical problem, not as a personal shortcoming. Substance abuse, severe anxiety, depression, and eating disorders are illnesses as physically real, and as in need of medical treatment, as broken bones, heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.
We also need to make sure our health systems are designed to integrate mental health care into health care as a whole, and to free mental health patients from any shame about their conditions that they or their family may have internalized. Parents will contact a doctor or a hospital with questions about care for their child who is struggling with chemical dependency, for example, but even then they sometimes hesitate to ask, because of fear of judgment. Those parents – or anyone struggling with mental health – need our encouragement to break through the barrier of stigma and make the call. They need to know that help is available without criticism or blame.
Our health is composed of mind, body, and spirit. The more we can raise awareness of that unity, the better able we will be to fully meet the health care needs of our communities.
Debbie Hutchinson, Psy.D., MFT, is the Clinical Manager of Outpatient Mental Health Programs at Mission Hospital, Laguna Beach, part of the St. Joseph Hoag Health network of care.