A stigma often surrounds those children who suffer silently from depression and mental illness. Having been prescribed medication to treat the symptoms, children are sometimes signaled out, particularly at school, as school staff have one additional need to contend with. As a former administrator, I understand the time and effort it takes to make sure these children are properly attended to. And, having suffered from depression and mental illness myself, I know what it feels like to be on the other side, as well.
As a youngster and, especially, as a teenager, I experienced a wide range of emotions and acted out accordingly. I skipped school to stay in bed all day, rebelled against school rules, began to care less and less about school, failed to turn in homework assignments on time, if at all, and often left empty beer cans in my mother’s car.
I engaged in risky behavior, almost begging to get caught. For instance, even though I assured my mother I only needed her car to go study at the school library, actually, I would drive over the state border to New Mexico, 30 miles away, to buy beer.
I was considered a troubled teenager, a student who acted out. Even though my grades began to drop, I maintained friends until my junior year. After that I began spending more time drinking, and at my father’s grave, than socializing with friends my own age. I was a disrespectful, failing student who didn’t turn in homework, skipped school and occasionally talked back to authority figures.
Because of this history, I was particularly sensitive to the students I worked with at the middle school level, as a school superintendent. I recall arranging several meetings with parents and their children’s teacher, where we discussed concerns over their children’s behavior and apparent disinterest in school. I couldn’t help but recognize these traits deeply, as I had once expressed them myself. Having someone in the room who has gone through a similar experience is often of great benefit to students, as that person understands the sensitivities and can suggest concrete ways to make progress.
Parents often blame themselves for their children’s mental health issues and, yet, their sense of responsibility causes some to secretly blame their children for not “looking right and acting right.” In my experience, school social workers and astute, caring teachers were largely effective in helping parents come to the realization that their child needed help. I was fortunate to work in a district where our expert professional team was often successful in efforts to encourage the entire family to see an outside counselor.
Over the years, our society has come a long way in recognizing the chaos and burden that childhood mental illness can cause for the adolescent and for their family members. Still, even today, the age-old attitude toward children and even adults who suffer from mental illness is, “Buck up. Get it together. Get out of bed and go to school or work. Don’t be lazy. What’s wrong with you?”
This stigma can sometimes lead to a child, an adult or a family failing to seek help. Other times, they can’t get the help they need because of the barriers to accessing mental health treatment. Ironically, even though we now have more avenues to treat mental illness, the shame directed at lifesaving medications for these conditions is potent.
We all know stigma exists but, if we haven’t felt it’s impact personally, for ourselves or through someone we love, do we really have an idea what it’s like? Watch this Ted Talk for Sam Cohen’s perspective on what it means to be mentally ill in our society.
© 2018 Tyra Manning