Mental Health Stigma
Here’s some good news: more people are talking about mental health and wellness everywhere. From broadcast to social media, it’s out there. Still, millions of children and adolescents who struggle with mental health are reluctant to get care. When discussing mental health, stigma often brings shame and stress, which greatly reduces the likelihood that a young patient (or parent) will access needed healthcare.
This issue comes up in both mental and physical healthcare settings, so insights from both pediatricians and psychologists are important to consider here. We asked two experts – PM Pediatric Care’s Senior Medical Advisor Dr. Christina Johns and Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Jennifer Weber – to share ways mental health stigma shows up in their daily work with children and families.
Why Get Help Early?
In an ideal world, people would be able to address their wellness concerns the moment they start feeling ‘off.’ Unfortunately, this is not the case in many situations that Dr. Weber encounters in her work as a child and adolescent psychologist. She notes that “often by the time others realize someone is struggling, that person has already needed help for some time. That is why it is essential to help young people into mental health services as soon as they suspect the need.”
Dr. Johns presents another compelling argument for the importance of early assessment and intervention based on her experience in pediatric urgent care: sometimes, “physical health diagnoses may contribute to or explain mental health conditions, so we’ve got to consider and rule [those] out first.” For instance, if someone is experiencing common symptoms of depression, such as fatigue, weight gain, and low mood, they might actually be experiencing problems with their thyroid function. Thus, it is crucial to seek care, establish the true cause of the symptoms, and start appropriate treatment ASAP – in the physical or mental health space.
Why Is Getting Help So Hard?
Both physical and mental health professionals often see patients who are reluctant to get mental health help. Dr. Weber explains that young people care about what their loved ones think of them, and they worry about the reactions they might encounter if they attempt to seek help. “Not being able to anticipate how their friends and family may react, whether they may be rejecting or blaming, whether it may mean an anxiety-provoking trip to the hospital – all of these things encourage silence.”
Dr. Johns adds that younger kids often don’t like going to the doctor in general, so mental health treatment can feel like yet another doctor’s appointment. This may trigger fearful or negative emotions, perpetuating the idea that “there’s something wrong with me” or that “I’m not normal.”
Normalize Mental Healthcare
This issue is rooted in the general stigma of getting help and the social pressure to appear strong. Dr. Weber says that “the longer someone takes to get help, the longer not having help has been normalized,” so people keep living their lives without seeking necessary mental health support, modeling this behavior for their children and young adults.
There is also a normalization of dislike or fear of medicine – physical or mental. Dr. Johns hopes to see families “normalize medical interactions and medical visits so should there become a mental health concern related or unrelated to any physical concern, we are already talking about it like it’s normal.” This way, when medical professionals recommend that a patient seeks mental healthcare, there isn’t as much push back or reluctance to do so.
Helping a Child to Mental Healthcare
Seeing your child struggle emotionally can be tough, but our experts offer some tips and perspective on ways you can encourage them to seek help.
Dr. Weber advises starting the conversation by making an honest observation and expressing your concerns. For instance: “I noticed you spent the last couple of weeks in your room after school and all day on the weekends when you usually are out with your friends. You barely came out, only to use the bathroom and grab a snack. I am worried about you. Is something wrong?”
Try asking your child this question: “what if things were better?” Dr. Weber explains that “encouraging people to look beyond their current symptoms and imagine achieving goals is often a good motivator.” She also encourages patients to identify even just one person in their life they feel comfortable talking with to start the process of unburdening themselves.
Dr. Johns shares some common warning signs of mental health struggle that parents should watch for in their children:
- Eating more or less than usual
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Appearing withdrawn
- Signs of self-harm
- Grades dropping
- Lack of interest in activities
Dr. Johns also reminds us that language matters in difficult conversations, so be careful how you frame your concerns when speaking with your child about their mental health. Try to offer praise and remain positive, staying away from scary or negative terms like ‘sick,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘life-threatening,’ ‘illness,’ ‘messed up,’ etc. Normalize saying that it’s okay to be concerned, it’s okay to have anxiety, you’re brave for taking care of yourself, proud of you, etc.
Both experts agree that early intervention in any health concern is key to its resolution and management. This is why parents need to pay close attention to their children, so they can intervene and support them as soon as it becomes necessary. At the same time, it’s important to nurture a warm and comfortable relationship with children to provide the safe space they need to open up about their mental health concerns. Normalizing conversations about our feelings and inner struggles in the family and the community helps battle mental health stigma, making young people more likely to get help.
If you or a family member needs behavioral and/or mental health treatment, but aren’t sure where to start, read more here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!