By Beth Sapiro
As a therapist working in schools, clinics and after-school programs, I frequently run up against the barrier of stigma. All too often, a child or adolescent is struggling with emotional and behavioral problems that could be addressed through counseling. However, when the possibility of therapy is broached, the responses come fast and furious:
-Therapy is only for people with serious mental problems.
-Therapy means you’re “psycho.”
-Therapy means you’ll be labeled and discriminated against for the rest of your life.
-Being in therapy means you’ll have to take medication forever and be a zombie.
-You don’t need therapy; you need to stop being lazy/pay attention/get a job/grow up.
Particularly for teens, the prospect of opening up to an adult about personal matters, instead of consulting with friends, can seem especially unpleasant. Parents are rightfully concerned that their children can be labeled as “special needs” and not receive the help they actually need. Unfortunately, the downside of the stereotypes and stigma about therapy is that too many children who need mental health treatment don’t get it. Therapy and medication can make a big difference for children and families affected by mental illness. This week, May 6-12, 2012, is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. What can you do to speak up and fight the stigma against mental illness?
#1 – Educate yourself about children’s mental health issues. Check out the 7 myths about child mental health.
#2 – Challenge hurtful comments that perpetuate stereotypes and prevent people from getting help for painful symptoms. When someone says, “What’s the matter with you? You need to get your head examined!”, call them out on it. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
#3 – Praise young people who are brave enough to seek help from others. It’s a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness, to ask for help when you can’t do something completely on your own. Teachers, group leaders, parents, and other adults who care about kids can model this by sharing their own stories of overcoming difficulties with assistance from others, be it a tutor, a speech therapist, or a counselor.
For more information on National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, check out their official website.
Beth Sapiro works in our Counseling Services division and is a licensed clinical social worker.