Staving Off Stigma
Stigma around mental illness and developmental differences still exists. Awkward avoidance, redirected friendships, and unkind glances are all signs of stigma. So is discrimination. Some people still don’t think about brain health the way they think about the rest of the body. This can be driven by fear, ignorance, or insecurity. Encouraging dialogue can improve awareness, understanding and empathy. Each person who speaks out inspires others.
The Art of Selective Disclosure
Every parent has their own comfort level about how much information to share with others. We don’t want people to judge, dismiss, or limit our child’s possibilities. Some of us choose to protect our family’s privacy and disclose information only on a need-to-know basis. 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.
Many People Can Relate
There will always be people who perpetuate stigma, but consider how many other parents are facing similar challenges.
An estimated 1 in 5 children in the United States have or have had a psychiatric disorder. 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 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.
Here are 3 Ways to Stave off Stigma
1. Chip Away; Share a Little More
One way to fend off this epidemic of loneliness and stigma is to 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.” When you speak out, you will feel a new sense of freedom and inspire others to share.
2. Be Calm in Your Reactions
It’s inevitable that some people will say the wrong thing, which 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.
3. 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.
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