Just a few days after the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, CNN hosted a town hall discussion with families, local politicians, law enforcement and a NRA spokeswoman. Amidst the profound anguish, what struck me was the language the NRA representative used to describe the gunman. He was a “madman”. An “insane monster”, “crazy”, “nuts”. His act was no doubt horrific, but it made me sad that there was no compassion around how that young man had reached such a desperate mental state. No discussion about how the system had failed him – and the entire community.
“Crazy Monster” Stigma
Though it seems like every year there is progress in reducing stigma around mental health, the NRA spokeswoman’s harsh language is an example of how blatant stigma still exists. It also hovers around addiction, developmental and learning differences. Whether they are fearful, ignorant or insecure, some people still don’t think about brain health the way they think about the rest of the body.
Even when stigma isn’t in your face, it still floats in the ether. Many of us have been hurt by other people’s awkward avoidance, unkind glances and redirected friendships. We often hide the details about our kids’ struggles because we don’t want people to judge them, or dismiss them, or limit their possibilities. And some stigma (we must admit) exists in our own imagination. We might assume that others will make us feel ashamed, like crappy parents, even if that’s not the case. Whatever the reason, when it comes to sharing information about our children’s struggles, parents still feel pressure to stay silent.
The Art of Selective Disclosure
To deal with the risks – real and perceived – parents practice the art of selective disclosure. Everyone’s comfort level is different. Some of us choose to protect our family’s privacy or pretend everything’s perfect. Others lay it all out there because the idea of suffering alone is inconceivable. The rest of us vary what we reveal, depending on the audience.
Years ago, I recall a mother complaining to me that she was sick of her daughter always getting “stuck in the inclusion classroom” and “seated next to the troublemakers” because her girl was such a model student. Little did she know, my son was one of “those kids”, which left me weighing my choices about what to say to her. I could go with silence and tacitly agree: “uh-huh”. I could speak up, and without revealing anything about my son’s struggles, try to change her perspective: “I think having our kids exposed to children with developmental or learning issues (or whatever) is constructive. It helps them appreciate differences and opens them to compassion.” Or I could give her a peek into my own story, sharing a bit about my son’s strengths and challenges in hopes that knowledge might make her think again about writing off inclusion. I opted for the latter, and we ended up having an amazing conversation.
The Numbers Are on Your Side: Many Can Relate
There will always be people who perpetuate stigma, but we need to remember that the numbers are on our side. Instead of assuming everyone will judge you, consider how many other parents are facing similar challenges.
According to the Child Mind Institute’s 2015 Mental Health Report, an estimated 17.1 million of the 74.5 millions children in the United States have or have had a psychiatric disorder. In other words, 22% of American youth will have a diagnosable mental illness with “serious impairment” at some point before they are 18. This includes anxiety, ADHD, depression and eating disorders. Beyond age 18, an increasing number of young adults are experiencing problems with mental health, too. A recent survey by the American College Health Association of more than 63,000 students at 92 schools found that nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the same time period. For almost every one of those kids, there is a parent in the background trying to help and cope.
Here are 3 Ways to Stave off Stigma
- Chip Away; Share a Little More.
One way to fend off this epidemic of loneliness and stigma is to reach out. Open up. Take a calculated risk and share just a tiny bit more about your story than you would have. Odds are good that the person with whom you are speaking will sigh with relief and say “Wow, I can relate.”
In a poignant blog: “What We Didn’t Say: a struggle – parenting children with mental illness – is finally shared”, Robin Herman wrote about the many years she stood under the trees at her school reunions, only whispering about the travails of her family life to one classmate who understood. It took years before she experienced the liberation of sharing the truth. At her fortieth reunion, when a classmate offered up stories of his successful children, she stopped spewing euphemisms and described the real challenges her kids were having. To her surprise, “a look of chagrin” came across her classmate’s face. Then he opened up and confided that he too had a child who struggles with mental illness. Later, she organized a panel discussion on parenting young adult children with mental illness and the room was packed. When you open up, you will feel a new sense of freedom, and you will also be chipping away at stigma.
- Be Calm in Your Reactions
It’s inevitable that some people will say the wrong thing, and that can feel like salt rubbed in a wound. Instead of reacting with anger or hurt, we need to help people understand. For example, if someone says: “I don’t mean to be nosy, but what’s wrong with him?”, treat it like an honest question. Take a deep breath and remember that each comment is just one comment, not the accumulation of hurt you have had to bear. Reacting harshly will only shut down the discussion and allow stigma to flourish.
- Offer Knowledge
Encouraging more people to understand about mental illness and other challenges children and adolescents face will change lives. We all have brains, so why shouldn’t we treat the whole person? As Michelle Obama said “At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distraction.” Educating people will reduce stigma, so that other parents might seek treatment for their kids, rather than deny there’s an issue.
If All Else Fails, Wish Them Well
If you don’t feel comfortable opening up to someone – at all – it’s okay to trust your instincts. Maybe they’re too judgmental or curious or rude. Instead of letting people like that get the best of you, take a lesson from Loving Kindness meditation and silently wish them well. By sending someone this message: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live in peace”, you are being generous of heart while protecting yourself.
Kids aren’t crazy monsters. They’re just looking for support, the same way we are.