Erasing Stigma Begins at Home


In the past few weeks, actress Kristen Bell has opened up publicly about her struggles with anxiety and depression. I couldn’t commend her more for putting a face to the struggles that so many endure alone.

Mental illness is treatable.  There are options when people are struggling.  Stigma is often the impediment to treatment or even acknowledgment, so thousands suffer in silence.  One of my favorite quotes is from Kevin Breel in his “Confessions of a Depressed Comic” at TEDxKids@Ambleside, “Unfortunately we live in a world where when you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast. But if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way. That’s the stigma. We are so accepting of any body part breaking down, other than our brains.”

As parents, we are our children’s first teachers. Talk to them about mental illness without shame or judgment. Bell reports her mother sitting her down and saying “if there ever comes a time where you feel like a dark cloud is following you, you can get help….I want you to know that there are options.” What an important gift we can give our children!

For those of you who wonder how young to start this conversation, I say as early as possible (in age appropriate terms and language).  Teach your children feeling words, let them express their emotions, and encourage them to share these feelings. If they get into the habit of sharing their feelings with you at a young age, then they hopefully will continue as teens.

Educate yourself about mental illness; what is it and what it is not. Having a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder does not always mean you are not “functional,” or a productive member of society. People are very good at wearing masks. As Bell says, “anxiety and depression are impervious to accolades or achievements.” You can have it “all” and still feel worthless. Even if that sounds counter-intuitive or indulgent, accept it as truth.

Erase words like ‘crazy’ and ‘nuts’ from your vocabulary, since the power of these words are stigmatizing in and of themselves.  Don’t disparage those who take psychotropic medication, much as you wouldn’t a diabetic who needs insulin.

If you struggle yourself, get help. If not for yourself, then for your teens. There is a lot of research supporting a parent’s mental health affecting their teens or younger children. If we can role model asking for help, we have a much better chance of our teens doing so.

And lastly, reserve judgment. Everyone is fighting a battle we don’t know about, so be kind!

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