When one of the patients in our child psychiatry clinic ends up needing to be hospitalized, he or she struggles with all the usual things that any other hospitalized child has to overcome including separation from family, pain, uncertainty, and falling behind in school. For our patients, however, there is often one more hurdle, namely, what to tell friends and acquaintances about why they were away.
Kids who break their leg or have their tonsils removed don’t usually need to come up with an “alternate story” for their absence, but a depressed adolescent who recently had a suicide attempt often does. This fact speaks to the continued stigma that exists surrounding mental health and psychiatric conditions. Certainly things have improved over the past several decades, but there remains a very long way to go.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it is something our culture continues to need very much. Despite the progress, myths about psychiatric disorders still abound. We hear people claim that psychiatric disorders aren’t “real” or that they are the product of individual weakness or laziness. We hear overblown statements about the link between mental illness and violence.
At the same time, there are some hopeful developments. The newly appointed Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, has identified mental health and mental health stigma as priorities for his tenure.
On March 4, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the Change Direction (www.changedirection.org) campaign in Washington D.C. about mental illness. This is one of her many fine statements in her speech.
“So there should be absolutely no stigma around mental health. None. Zero. I mean, just imagine if we treated breast cancer the way we treat mental health. Imagine if, instead of admiring cancer patients for their courage as they fight this disease, we feared them or were embarrassed by them. Imagine if we told folks with heart disease that they should just buck up and get it together.”
I am hopeful that the tide is slowly beginning to change. I am hopeful that the public is beginning to hear the message from science that mental health and physical health are inseparable domains. We are appreciating more and more that mental health does not separate into clean categories of “healthy” and “ill” but rather exists along continuums not unlike blood pressure or height. All of us are in this boat together and share in the responsibility of changing the way we view mental health.
Learn the facts. Refute the nonsense. And, most importantly, support those who struggle with emotional-behavioral problems to address and overcome these very common challenges. It’s time to Stomp the Sigma.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- No Kidding? Me Too!
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center, where he is Director of the Pediatric Psychiatry Clinic.