No, that’s not a typo. It is ‘S’ word, not ‘F’ word. In our lives there are a lot of ‘S’ words that I hate. Stupid, Stereotype and Stubborn are on the list, but the most dreaded ‘S’ word for me is Stigma.
Stigma: A set of negative and often unfair beliefs that society or group of people have about something.
I have had doctors tell me that giving my son a diagnosis of bipolar disorder made them nervous. They didn’t want him to have the stigma of living with it. This frustrated me to no end. Stigma is society’s problem. Regardless of what society thinks, if my son needs the correct diagnosis in order to be treated, then it is a doctor’s responsibility to do so. I wanted to scream “Let me worry, let me deal with public view. Doctors, do your job and help my kid!”.
The problem is: there are too many parents that are afraid of this word. They fear that the diagnosis will define the child and what everybody thinks of them, and their family. We know our kids better than anyone. We know that this illness does not define them. There is so much more to them than this diagnosis. If we don’t start talking, how are other people supposed to know that? And how are other parents going to feel safe enough to get their children the help they need?
After an intense conversation on the phone the other day regarding this topic, my son asked me why stigma was such a big deal. The only way I could explain it, that seemed to make sense to him, was by explaining the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that plagued our country for almost 20 years. It was essentially telling military personal that you are protected as long as you don’t reveal yourself. I feel like when there is mental illness in a family, people tend to enforce their own ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. In my opinion, by doing that, it teaches our children to be ashamed of something that is beyond their control. If we don’t open up about the challenges we face on a daily basis, how do we expect to gain understanding from the world around us.
Start with the community around you: friends, family and teachers. Talk about the struggles you deal with day in and day out, but also talk about the wins. I talk about our bad days a lot, but I also make sure to let people know about our good days and especially our great days. I am not saying that it always works, some people don’t want to let go of the image they have of mental illness. That’s when I start using facts and statistics.
At a recent IEP meeting, we were discussing my son’s increasing number of absences. I was getting a little frustrated. A lot of people don’t understand the symptoms that come along with bipolar or anxiety disorders. My son tends to have a lot of stomach issues. I get called on regular basis from the nurse’s office because he has been vomiting. He tends to miss more of his afternoon classes than morning classes. I brought up the fact that, if my child had been diagnosed with cancer, leniency would be given in this matter. Because it is a mental illness and not something as visually debilitating, they assume that he is going to function like any healthy kid.
My argument: in 2012, childhood cancer (which they state is the leading cause of death in children) took approximately 1400 lives. That same year, suicide took over 4000 kids under the age of 19. How many of those kids do you think suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness that had not been diagnosed? I have read other statistics that stated approximately 25% of children with early onset bipolar disorder will commit suicide. Those numbers are simply too high for me to sit back and watch the world shame these kids for having an illness. What is most frustrating to me is that with other illnesses such as cancer or diabetes, they are still doing research every day to try to find a cure. That research has decreased the number of deaths significantly. With mental illness, however, we know there is no cure, but we have it in our ability to prevent these deaths by making sure patients get treatment.
Parents, doctors and teachers simply need to throw of all of those dreaded ‘S’ words out the window and help these kids get the help they need. Education goes a long way to start erasing the stigma that society holds. Yes, there will always be people who judge, that is human nature. If we let other people’s judgment dictate our lives, we will always be in a bubble. I used to think “Please let us just survive today”, but who just wants to survive? I want to live a full life, I want my son to live a full life. If it takes me screaming at the top of my lungs, I will use my voice to break down these walls that are surrounding this illness.