Breaking the Silence in Families

I recently attended training by Stephan Hinshaw, a professor at UC Berkeley, on the Stigma of Mental Illness. It is somewhat surprising to learn just how prevalent negative judgments about emotional problems are in our society. Statistics show that in the U. S. we know far more about mental illness than we did in the 1950’s, yet we are equally or more stigmatizing toward it than we have been historically.

Unfortunately, people tend to lump problems as common as anxiety or depression in the same category as some of the more serious, violent, and debilitating mental illnesses displayed so negatively in the media. The vast majority of teens coming in for treatment for a “mental illness,” of course, are not insane or a danger to anyone. They are normal, often high-functioning adolescents who work jobs, attend school, and have friends, but who struggle with depression, anxiety or trouble adjusting to a recent life change.

Societal judgment may be worse for a parent bringing their teenager in for treatment. Goffman cites the reason for this is something called “courtesy stigma.” He found that, “If society has stigmatized a given class of people, it’s common courtesy to stigmatize those associated with such individuals.” He said that parents have been blamed directly for their teenager’s problems for decades and that, even if you view mental illness as having a genetic component, the parents are still left with the blame.

In my experience, teens are neither ashamed of going to therapy themselves nor judgmental about their friends who do. This gives me hope about a future in which more people work on their mental health from an early age. It does cause friction in families, though, as teens tell everyone they know that they’re in therapy, and parents, who get the “courtesy stigma” feel justifiably upset. Interestingly enough, though, when they are open about getting help for their children, many parents find that what they receive from the community at large is support, not condemnation. One client of a colleague of mine commented, “ALL parents are having a tough time with their teens, whether they admit it or not. So, when I finally told my friend that I was getting help for my daughter, she was, like, ‘give me the name of your therapist so I can get my daughter in, too.'”

I wish more people were as open as this mom. Research shows that emotional issues often have a genetic component, but that breaking the pattern of shame and silence around mental illness in families can reduce the likelihood of future generations developing a mental illness. We are all human, and many of us suffer from anxiety, depression, addiction, phobias, or other mental disorders. Once we find that we aren’t alone, we are not as ashamed. Once we aren’t as ashamed, our level of anxiety and depression is reduced, making it more likely for us, or our children, to get the help we need.