There are hundreds of words we have all heard describing those with mental illness symptoms, especially among children and teens. They include crazy, loony, psycho, nuts, mental, and many others. These are words that create stigmas and prevent children and adults from talking about our own issues. When you respond to someone using these words, it is more helpful to be curious than to simply lecture, “Don’t talk that way. That isn’t kind.”
If you hear someone using this language, you may want to start with some reflective listening:: “Wow, sounds like you are having some feelings about that person you called ‘crazy.’ Can you help me understand what you saw or heard that caused you to call them that?” And after your child describes what they observed, you might suggest that you learn together about what those behaviors might mean about what someone is experiencing. This will help your child understand others but it will also create a safe space for your child to think about their own behaviors and emotions.
There are several reasons why stigmas are a serious problem for our children and teens. Kids who hear stigmas about mental illness are:
- More Likely to internalize these social prejudices and hide their own symptoms which tends to result in conditions worsening
- More likely to develop low self-worth and negative self-concept like thinking they are weak or bad
- Less likely to seek treatment
- May develop limited aspirations and hopes for the future
- May develop a sense of shame or personal failure
Children and teens who learn about mental health disorders from friends or the media are likely to develop stigmatizing language and have a lot of misunderstandings about the nature of mental illness. When parents talk about mental health in general and specifically about mental health difficulties in ordinary conversation with honesty and compassion, they can provide important information to their children like:
- Mental health disorders are usually portrayed inaccurately in TV and films so it is important to ask questions about any symptoms that children are having or that they may see in others.
- Most mental health problems begin in childhood or adolescence and outcomes are better when symptoms are addressed early.
- Mental illness is a highly treatable condition in most cases and those with mental health problems usually go on to live productive, satisfying lives if they seek and participate in treatment.
Most importantly, youth who aren’t able to share their symptoms and ask for help are more at risk for suicidal thoughts or actions.
Mental health is a complex subject, and this all works best when we are willing to be lifelong learners and think together with our kids about these issues, rather than trying to be “experts”. Parents might talk with kids about how labels hurt and think together about other ways to think about people who are displaying different behavior. Sometimes children will talk about friends as a way of sharing their own concerns. Parents can choose to go with that for a while to learn more about what is on their child’s mind. Eventually, with trust, the child may choose to express their own feelings and dilemmas. So, talking about mental health really means listening as well. Be curious about how your child sees the world, ask them to tell you more about issues they raise, observe carefully, and trust your gut. If you have any concerns, be sure to talk with your pediatrician, your child’s teacher, or another school professional and keep asking for help until you get it.