2019 Jun 26
So many adolescents are at the receiving end of phrases like “it’s all in your head,” “just snap out of it” and “stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Most often than not, they hear them within the confines of their own home. It comes as no surprise then, that the heavy stigma attached to young people in denial of seeking professional treatment for mental health begins pretty early on.
Why do parents deny the existence of mental illness?
- For most parents, acknowledging the fact that their child needs treatment for mental health is seen as something that threatens the honour and reputation of their family. Especially in the South Asian context, this reason is likely to make up for a valid excuse to avoid seeking professional help in the hope that it would “go away” eventually.
- Parents may also question their own parenting behaviour when they suspect that their child shows signs of mental illness. Here, admitting that something is wrong with their child would be similar to admitting something is wrong with them or is considered a sign of bad parenting. Overlooking the need for seeking help from a mental health practitioner can be one way to ignore the fact that he/she needs treatment or that their parenting will solve the problem.
- Treatment for mental health is often believed to be an expensive process and one that requires medication that may be harmful in the long run. Neither of them are entirely accurate. Sri Lanka has a number of readily available centres/helplines and one-on-one counselling services that are run either on a volunteer basis or do not require thumping amounts of money to access them. Mental health communities like The Ohana Project and Sumithrayo, for example, are communities of mental health professionals who are readily available to help anyone who seeks mental health help. Parents should also keep in mind that medication is not always needed unless recommended by a professional. Effective treatment measures usually include counselling and various types of therapy.
The Generation Gap
Nivendra Uduman, counselling Psychologist and member of The Ohana Project identifies the generational lack of understanding as chief among several reasons behind the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental illness. Notions like “my child is just lazy” or “it’s not such a big deal” and “she/he is just imagining” are common excuses made by parents. This lack of understanding and support can damage an adolescent or young adult’s mental health even further.
Issues related to relationships, anxiety and depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation and sexuality are often misunderstood, ignored and trivialised by parents of young children, pre-teens, teens and young adults. In the past, parents themselves may have been told to “chin up” and deal with it on their own. In the present age, however, at a time when the discourse on mental health awareness is much more extensively spoken about, the onus shifts to parents, caregivers and teachers to look out for signs of mental distress and be supportive of young people seeking professional help.
Nivendra also stressed on the harmful effects of perpetuating the notion that children should be “grateful” for everything that parents provide for them and therefore, have no reason to feel depressed, anxious or in need of a reason to seek help. “This is an attitude that needs to be challenged. Just because parents provide children with many things they need in life, it does not mean that a child’s mental health has to be overlooked,” he added. The unconditional love that a parent provides needs to be inclusive of an open space to discuss mental health matters.
Lack of Awareness on Mental Health
Apart from the lack of generational understanding, treatment for mental health remains a taboo due to the prevalent lack of awareness on the topic. Educating oneself on the importance of mental health, the different types of mental illness, treatment options, etc. is key for parents to understand what their child may be going through.
For example, a child who does not want to get out of bed is often labelled as lazy or unproductive by parents. Sometimes, parents are quick to make harsh and harmful remarks like “snap out of it,” “it’s only a phase,” or “get some exercise.” Not only are such comments indifferent but they may also discourage children and young adults from reaching out and can also make them feel not care and supported for. This, in turn, preserves the harmful cycle of showing indifference and lack of concern towards mental health issues. This is where the importance of institutions holding mental health programmes to create awareness come into play.
It is crucial that parents take visible symptoms such as eating disorders, comments on suicide, pain like unexplained stomach aches and headaches and nausea seriously, instead of mistaking them for attention-seeking behaviour. The fact that youngsters are reluctant to tell parents that they are experiencing difficulties, let alone ask for help or tell them that they want to go for therapy is a disturbing realization.
Drawing from his experience in mental health, Nivendra Uduman pointed out that “most young people have told [him] that they have been shut down and was told to not take it seriously, or were questioned as to why they want to go and tell their family matters to other people.” In addition, young people often hear the misconceived notion that therapy or treatment is only for “crazy” people and therefore, they do not need it.
Alternative sexual identities also happen to be a heavily stigmatised area. When parents perceive this as unnatural or wrong, the consequences can be quite detrimental. Parents need to be more validating and acknowledge their children’s identities by letting them know that they have the right to be whoever they want to be. Commenting on this aspect, Nivendra states that the pressure to conform and win various kinds of awards and accolades can place a severe toll on young people. Looking at the bigger picture, this also adds to the economic burden of the country as more people who are forced to suppress mental health issues emerge, the strain on the country’s limited resources also escalates.
Being a supportive parent
Parents need to be approachable and show their support and acknowledgement of the importance of mental health. Here are a few guidelines to follow, according to The Ohana Project:
- Mental health is as important as physical health. Take both aspects of your child’s wellbeing seriously.
- Provide constant reassurances that show your unconditional presence.
- Ask them how they are often. Do not settle for generic answers like ‘I am fine’ etc. If you feel that he/she needs support, reach out and encourage them to speak to you.
- Validate their concerns.
- Listen before jumping into conclusions.
- Educate yourself and others about mental health and its importance.
- Stay connected with your child’s daily activities and hobbies.
- Parenting is not an easy task. Ask for support when you need it.
Parent-reported stigma has a huge influence in the help-seeking process. Nonetheless, the onus of responsibility of protecting a child’s mental health falls not just on parents and mental health professionals, but also on school teachers, coaches, caregivers, extended family or essentially anyone who interacts with young individuals. Understanding the impact of stigma and its long-term effects is key in tackling this issue.
Be the one to change the norm. Educate others and spread the word.
The Ohana Project is always on standby to help anyone in need treatment for mental health.