Stigmatization – the degrading attitude that discredits a person because of an attribute they have (in this case, mental illnesses).
Stigmatization is the one thing we all learn about in school, the one attitude that can discriminate and make others feel helpless because of a certain attribute they may have. My experience with stigmatization is a bit different than what others may have, it has not directly happened to me, but others that I have been around.
I volunteer at a great government-run organization where I get to help children under 12 who have a wide range of mental health issues. I have the pleasure to volunteer with children who live with depression, anxiety, OCD, ODD, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and many other mental health related disorders. I get to know these children, I get to hangout with them, I get to listen to their hardships, their achievements, and their stories about birthday parties and school days. As much as I love this position, it can be hard at times because I get to know many children who are taught to hide and be ashamed of their issues.
Its sad to think children this young have been taught to keep quiet about their issues, to act as though they do not have them. I remember one pair of siblings who told me they weren’t allowed to tell their friends or family that they come to the organization – instead they tell their friends they go to a babysitter’s house. I’ve had another child ask me if he’s a bad person because of his diagnosis, and another laugh about how her parents tell her to lie to her friends about who I am (I guess I’m her “fake” cousin). These children are so young, yet are already taught that they need to “hide” a part of them, as if attending this organization is unnatural. This makes them feel as though their mental illness is wrong, is something to be ashamed of, and is something that you need to lie about in order to be considered “normal”.
My question is what is the big deal? Why is society so quick to stigmatize mental health issues – and why are parents teaching their children that having a mental health disorder must be hidden? These creative, smart, witty little individuals are being taught that their psychological disorders are restricting, rather than something that is completely manageable. A person is not defeated by a diagnosis; a person should not be labelled as their diagnosis; a person and his or her diagnosis are separate entities that live together. We need to break this cycle of stigmatization and ensure children, teenagers, and adults don’t have to be ashamed of their mental health. We need to stop labelling mental health issues as “abnormal”, because in reality, what is normal anyways?