Stigma and mental health: a parent’s guide
Image by Evonne
Natasha Devon MBE is the founder of the Self-Esteem Team, working in schools throughout the UK delivering workshops on mental health and body image. In August 2015 she was appointed the government’s Mental Health Champion for Schools. Here, she offers support for parents if your child is suffering from a mental health condition
One of the inherent benefits of delivering mental health workshops and presentations in schools is that the pupils have to be there. It’s mandatory. There’s no wiggling out of it.
Sometimes they try, of course. Girls will furtively pull me to one side before the lesson and confess that they are self-harming and wish to be excused because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to deal with it. Boys relentlessly lark about, screeching at each other and getting their peers in headlocks, which is their way of saying ‘I’m really uncomfortable about this situation’. In both instances my tactic is reassurance. This is a lesson relevant to everyone with a brain and we’re going to approach it with humour and sensitivity. No one will be singled out or forced to contribute. You’ll leave feeling positive and elated. That is the Self-Esteem Team guarantee.
With parents, the situation isn’t quite so straightforward. Schools will tell me there is a ‘huge’ demand for parental advice on mental health, after perhaps a student suicide, or an epidemic of eating disorders in one year group and I’ll agree to a twilight parent session before finding myself presenting to a room of eight people.
There is still significant stigma surrounding mental health and in mums and dads this tends to manifest in a misguided belief that if their child is mentally unwell it is a reflection on their proficiency as a parent. Coming along to a mental health class is, in their minds I believe, tacit admission that there is an ‘issue’ in their household and that they have therefore done something ‘wrong’.
For any parents who, whether consciously or not, think in this way – let me reassure you. Mental health can broadly be divided into two subcategories – day-to-day mental wellbeing and mental illness.
Let’s examine wellbeing first. Just as anyone with a body has a level of physical health, anyone with a brain also has a level of mental health.
Our levels of mental wellbeing will fluctuate throughout our lifetime. We will variously feel stressed, anxious, insecure, bullied, heartbroken and bereaved at certain points – these are certainties. Whilst these common mental health issues may not be severe enough for us to seek help from a medical professional, they absolutely affect our ability to function.
Just as it is advantageous to educate ourselves about nutrition and to get into a routine of regular exercise to nurture our physical health, mental wellbeing can be boosted through good habits. This is what a large portion of my lesson for teenagers focuses on – we look at the realities of the modern world which make feeling mentally well difficult (including social media, pornography, body image pressure and exams) and then we give suggestions on how to minimise the potential negative impact.
See, now that wasn’t so scary was it?
When it comes to mental illness, there is a significant genetic, chemical element. It’s as much physiological as it is ethereal. We wouldn’t judge a parent whose child had cancer, and having bipolar is essentially no different. It’s the responsibility of the whole community to attempt to empathise and to support people who are poorly and one of the best ways we can do that is to educate ourselves – understand what life is like for them and remove the prejudices and stereotypes (we all have them) from our minds.
I always find it ironic that people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses are sometimes considered ‘scary’. As someone who has been through the process of recovery, I can tell you that the point of diagnosis marks the stage where you begin to understand yourself. You learn what motivates your thought processes and behaviours and, using medication, therapy or creative outlets, you understand how you can master them again. In short, people with diagnosed mental illnesses tend to be the sanest people you’ll ever meet.
It only takes a few brave people to make significant progress in smashing stigma. A mother I spoke to recently summarised it best. She said:
“Whenever we’d get together with other mums and dads, it always turned into this bragging competition – whose child had been predicted an A* at GSCE, who had passed their Grade 8 cello, who was doing their Duke of Edinburgh Award. One day I just got sick of it. I was at a dinner party and someone asked me how my son was and I took a deep breath and replied ‘actually, not so good at the moment. He’s self-harming.’
There was a pause and then another mum said ‘my daughter does that, too’. It turned out every single parent around the table had SOMETHING going on behind closed doors. We were all struggling, but none of us had wanted to admit it. We went away no longer feeling that we were trying to battle these issues alone”.
Where to get help if your child is suffering from a mental health condition
The Self-Esteem Team (www.selfesteemteam.org)
The Bodygossip Education Programme – site dedicated to body image issues (bodygossip.org)
Young Minds (www.youngminds.org.uk) - and its sister site HeadMeds.
Mental Health First Aid England (www.mhfaengland.org)
Time to Change (www.time-to-change.org.uk)
Update: in May 2016, Natasha Devon left her role as the government's schools mental health champion. She continues to write, speak and campaign on children and young people's mental health issues.