How To Break The Stigma Around Child Mental Health

Mental health in general comes with an unfortunate societal stigma. It can be seen in a number of different mindsets: the fear of those with mental illnesses, an unwillingness of someone to seek treatment because they feel ashamed, or just the casual use of “insane” or “crazy” in popular speech. We have a long way to go. This post will spotlight, in specific, the stigma around child mental health, as it comes with its own unique set of issues and underlying factors.

But first, some statistics: Around 70% of mental health problems, according to the Government of Canada, begin during childhood or adolescence, with another study showing that oftentimes families don’t know where to find help for those issues. And, according to a 2012 study by the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health,63% of youth cited stigma as the reason to not seek help. Those stats and surveys paint an urgent picture –child mental health issues are a pressing matter, and the conversation surrounding them has been woefully lacking. It’s time to break the stigma.

To do that, it’s important to dispel some myths about child mental health. First off, some people are sceptical that child mental health issues exist at all, a sentiment you can hear when someone attributes a mental health issue to just “growing pains”, “a part of the growing up process”, or “being a normal, distracted kid”. This might belie a mistrust of medicalization in general, but it devalues and disregards real issues. Child mental health issues exist, and children focused mental health services help immensely – children can and do recover from mental illness.

Another unfortunate one you hear is that it’s somehow the parents’ fault. It is not the parents’ fault. Parents of children with mental health issues often do the best they can, but they cannot deal with the issue alone. Targeting parents is missing the mark by a healthy margin, as it only serves to promote a culture of shame around mental health.

Then there is the notion that depression is just run-of-the-mill sadness, and that a child – or indeed an adult, for that matter – only needs to “snap out of it”, or be reminded of what they should be thankful for. This again undervalues a serious issue, one whose consequence might even be the loss of a young life. Listen to children who say they feel depressed, and take it as seriously as you would any physical condition. Depression is very real, affecting different people in different ways, but it is treatable.

That leads finally to the question of efficacy, as there are some who are unsure if therapy or treatment works. It does work, and it’s advisable to see a psychologist or therapist if you notice one or more signs of a mental health issue in your child. It can be a frightening prospect, admitting that your child has a mental health issue that requires treatment, but it is definitely what’s best for your child. Overcoming the broader cultural stigma begins on the personal level.  And treating mental health issues much like we treat physical issues – that is, realizing that it’s not the fault of the person – is a good place to start.