Since I started writing this blog, my goal has been to bring attention to the stigma that accompanies mental health illnesses. Whether that illness is a “simple” bout of depression or a much more complex battle with bipolar disorder, there is stigma. I believe, and so much of my reading confirms my beliefs, that society understands the pain and challenges of almost any other disease, but not mental illness. There seems to be little compassion for someone who suffers with a mental illness. Most people think that it is a condition that can be wished away. They believe that if you just pick yourself up and decide to be okay, you will be okay. We who have been challenged by a mental health condition know that it doesn’t work like that. People outside of our club need to understand that our illnesses cannot be met by turning off a switch. But most non-members do not get it.
The stigma of mental illness becomes more complicated when a family is dealing with the mental illness of a child. A whole family is effected by a child’s illness, whether it be a physical or mental illness. We all understand that the family of a child who has leukemia, or of a child who has MS, or of a child who is physically disabled, has a lot on its plate. There are outward signs of these “regular” illnesses that help society to understand and appreciate the difficulties of the illness. But a child who suffers from an anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, or a bipolar disorder usually has no wheelchair, no bald head, no tubes. The symptoms and side effects are often invisible. The disease is all about behavior, and behavior is not easy to grasp.
As parents, we all want our children to grow up happy, healthy, and loved. With those parental wishes in mind, one could ask the following questions: How painful is it for a parent to know that his/her child can only be happy in spurts, if at all? How painful is it for a parent to know that he/she never knows when the child might be cutting him/herself? How painful is it for a parent to know that the child is too depressed to go out in public and interact with his/her peers? The answer is – excruciating.
In addition to the pain any parent experiences when watching his/her child suffer, parents of children who have mental health issues often lack a critical support system. Their friends and colleagues don’t understand the difficulties involved in handling a mental illness. A mental illness presents the same challenges to a family as leukemia presents. Both families are plagued with fear for their child’s life. Both families are stretched by the amount of patience and energy needed to help their child fight a medical battle. In each case, the right medications need to be found, and a protocol of treatment needs to be determined. And just as with leukemia, a mental health battle can take a circuitous path through trial and error. But here is where the paths diverge. In the case of the family helping their child battle leukemia, friends and family gather around to give support. In the case of the family with a child with a mental health issue, there is little understanding of the situation, and therefore little support. Instead, there is often a chant of “She’ll grow out of it,” “He’ll be fine,” “It’s just a phase.”
I just finished reading a lengthy article written by a mother who has a daughter with a mental health issue. The mother states that she would much rather have a child in a wheelchair than a child with a mental health disease. The problems of a physically disabled child in a wheelchair are understood. There is no question but that the child is ill and the parent will have a lot on his/her plate as the child ages. But having a child with a mental disease does not generate the same kind of response. People see a child who can walk and talk with apparent normalcy. People do not understand the pain of watching your child break down into a fit of uncontrollable rage. Few understand what it is like to anxiously wait for the next time your child will have an uncontrollable fit. Few understand what it is like to have a child who will be self-abusive because of self-hate. As I remarked above, people often assume that the child with a mental health issue will grow out of it. They do not understand that there is no “growing out of it.” It is a lifetime of managing a child with a disease. These families need others to acknowledge their pain.