Some research points to lack of awareness of childhood depression among sufferers and their families; however, the stigma associated with depression and other mental illness appears to be a driving factor in not receiving proper evaluation and treatment.
Even for those children and parents who may know their their feelings and behaviors are related to depression, the fear of stigma may keep them from seeking help.
Why Children Might Feel Stigmatized
- Feeling Different or Abnormal. Most children want to fit in with their peers, and having depression can make a child feel abnormal, different, or inherently bad -- creating feelings of stigma.
- Lack of Understanding of Depression. Many children lack an understanding of mental illness and depression. They have inaccurate perceptions of the mentally ill, and some people even believe that depression is caused by a contagious virus or due to a characteristic weakness. These inaccuracies often lead to children ostracizing their mentally ill peers, and contribute to feelings of stigma.
Parents Can Feel Stigma Too
Parents are not immune to feeling the stigma of depression. In fact, if a parent feels it, a child is likely to pick up on it too.
Parents often wonder if they did something to cause their child's depression and worry if they will somehow be labeled as a "bad parent" by other parents and professionals.
It is also possible that if a parent has had a negative experience in the mental or medical health industry, they may not want to expose their child to it.
Some parents may even worry that their child will be treated differently in school and perhaps be excluded from future opportunities.
While it is easy to understand how a parent might feel this way, there are safeguards to protect your child's confidentiality and rights.
It is important to find a trusted mental health provider and seek help for your child. Treatment for childhood depression gives a child the best chance at a bright future.
Psychoeducation and support groups are available to families of children with depression and often provide a great deal of support and confidence to parents.
How Parents Can Help
Children learn from their parents, so be sure to keep a positive and tolerant attitude about mental illness.
One study found that when depression was attributed to a genetic or hereditary causes, participants reported less associated stigma as compared to those who believed that depression is caused by a "weak" or "nervous" personality, a virus, or an allergy. The authors of this study concluded that the more knowledge a person has about depression, the less stigma they hold.
Given this, be proactive and talk to your child about depression and mental illness on an age-appropriate level. Let them know that it is not something to be ashamed of, and do not encourage or allow negative talk about the mentally ill. Instead, dispel any myths to the best of your knowledge.
Keeping the lines of communication open with your child will allow her to feel like she can talk to you about anything. However, do not be surprised if your child does not immediately let you know if she is feeling sad or depressed. You will still need to keep an eye on any concerning symptoms, and talk to her pediatrician or mental health provider when necessary.
Kathleen M. Griffiths, Dimity A. Crisp, Anthony F. Jorm, Helen Christensen. Does Stigma Predict a Belief in Dealing With Depression Alone? Journal of Affective Disorders. 2011. In Press.
Trevor M. Cook, JianLi Wang. Causation Beliefs and Stigma Against Depression: Results From a Population-Based Study. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2011. In Press.