Fight Mental Health Stigma: A Beginner’s Guide

Misconceptions and misrepresentations of mental health are everywhere… in the media, our workplaces, schools, and homes. The effects of mental health stigmas run deep and can prevent adults and children from living life to the fullest. When we break the stigma, we build healthier environments for future generations to build resilience and heal from trauma. Marriage and family therapist, Julia Patrick, LMFT-S, RPT-S, explains simple ways parents, teachers, and children can fight mental health stigma.

Addressing mental health stigma

African American parents fighting mental health stigmas from generational trauma and medical malpractice.

There are countless origins of mental health stigma. For some people of color, there’s a lack of trust within the medical community to safely address and treat health conditions – including mental health. Much of this mistrust stems from decades of racist medical malpractice in the U.S.

When emotions, stress, and trauma are not addressed over time, stigma sticks with families. If your family never talked about mental health, it’s unlikely you will. “What happens in the family stays in the family.”

Guilt and a lack of trust can also feed into the stigma. Many people, including children, feel like they are the problem and do not want to air their “dirty laundry” to a random stranger. While these fears are legitimate, families must seek intervention to begin healing.

To fight mental health stigma, it’s important to understand the purpose of therapy.

Common misconceptions about child therapy and family therapy

Teenage girl speaking with her therapist about mental health stigmas and trauma.

Many guardians and children have never experienced therapy and may not know what it entails. Child therapy combines a number of therapeutic processes like play therapy, art therapy, and confidential conversation to help kids express emotions and cope.

Child therapy is not

  • A way to get your child in trouble.
  • A means to “fix” your child.
  • Punishment for bad behavior.

Child therapy is meant to be

  • A safe space for children and parents.
  • An ongoing healing process that looks different for every person.
  • A tool to build coping skills and build resilience to the things life throws at us.

Fighting mental health stigma in therapy

Parents addressing mental health issues with teenage girl before starting therapy

At ChildSavers, we strive to break the stigma surrounding children’s mental health. Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with that child?”, we shift the focus to, “What happened to this child?” When we understand children are not the problem and bad behavior is a symptom of underlying mental health issues, true healing and change can take place.

Our therapists work to break mental health stigma through conscious and subconscious therapeutic practices.

Explaining our “why” and establishing a safe space

Some therapists, including myself, find that expressing our own personal experiences with therapy helps normalize it for kids. Discretionary self-disclosure often increases comfortability and helps establish rapport between client and therapist. When I tell children why I’m a therapist and what therapy means to me, I may become more relatable and safe.

Addressing intergenerational trauma through family therapy

While it is important for children to seek individual healing, family therapy can address and unroot intergenerational trauma. Trauma creates changes to our biology, our genetics and epigenetics, our behavior, and ultimately a myriad of lifetime health outcomes. It can also alter the trajectory of future generations if it goes unaddressed.

Family therapy allows guardians to experience therapy as individuals and a family unit. When multiple guardians (and or siblings) receive therapy, it can help normalize it for children. It can also improve basic communication, coping, and resilience-building skills to cultivate a healthier home environment. 

Increasing access to child therapy at school

Mental health stigma loses its grip in schools when more students have access to therapy. Since 2017, ChildSavers has partnered with Richmond Public Schools to place multiple trauma-informed therapists where children learn and play.

We work with teachers to cultivate referrals for therapy and craft individualized treatment plans for each child. This improves relations between students and educators and creates trauma-informed classrooms.

When children see that other students have a safe space to cool off or process life, they become more open to experiencing it themselves. It can also improve communication and an understanding of mental health within the student body.

Since placing more therapists in schools, we’ve seen an increase in grades and a drop in behavioral issues across the board. Students who take ownership of their emotional wellbeing tend to better manage their workload and relationships.

Tips for guardians: Breaking mental health stigma outside of therapy

Grandmother with children in therapy breaking through generational mental health stigma in their family.

Children are constantly learning from and observing us as adults. We cannot rely on therapy alone to shake the stigma. Parents and guardians must become positive role models.

Outside of therapy, it’s important for guardians to:

  • Use the things learned in therapy outside of session. For example, if your child is acting out, use coping skills to address the child’s issue – not their behavior. Addressing issues in a healthy way will model this for your children.
  • Encourage regular conversations about mental health and feelings on a daily or weekly basis. You can plan to talk about them at dinner or before bed to incorporate mental health check-ins into your family’s routine.
  • Share your own experiences with your child and continue validating their healing process,  including the bumps along the way.
  • Do not pick or pry about what happened in therapy. Instead, honor confidentiality and express pride in your child’s decision to engage in therapy.

Tips for teachers: Fighting mental health stigma in school

Teacher creating a safe space to talk about mental health in the classroom

Often times, teachers and educators are the first to know the struggles children are facing. Coaches, school social workers, and educators are the main referral source for connecting children with our mental health services.

Early educators can take the following steps to normalize conversation about mental health in their classrooms:

  • Talk about emotions on a daily basis and validate them… in curriculum and as they’re emoting in real-time.
  • Understand that children can receive therapy at a young age, even as toddlers. Healing can take place now and you can connect the family with the mental health services they may need.
  • Because you’re educating younger children who may be non-verbal or do not have the vocabulary to express how they’re feeling, ask children to express their emotions through playing or art.

K-12 teachers can break mental health stigma at school by:

  • Creating an “open door policy” and laying a foundation for students to talk to you about their lives.
  • Finding ways to appropriately share personal experiences and feelings.
  • Handling classroom outbursts in a trauma-informed way.
  • Understanding the mental health needs of each age.

Related resources:

 

ChildSavers School-Based Program Supervisor, Julia Patrick, LMFT-S, RPT-S, works with students and teachers in-school to provide child trauma-informed therapy and classroom safety planning. Julia studied Psychology at the University of South Carolina and received her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Southern California. She enjoys utilizing a wide variety of interventions, such as: play therapy, expressive arts, drama therapy, sand tray therapy and movement therapy to aid the client in exploring their thoughts and feelings. Julia believes that children grow and learn through the safety of a therapeutic relationship.

ChildSavers is a nonprofit in Richmond, Virginia that helps guide our community’s children through life’s critical moments with mental health and child development services. You can help connect children to trauma-informed therapy and quality early education by donating at childsavers.org/donate

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