There has been much discussion about the connection between mental illness and violence, particularly related to mass violence and school shootings, during the past weeks and months. Unfortunately, the language used and arguments made about this connection are not always accurate and can perpetuate assumptions that may lead some to avoid talking about their struggles or seeking treatment. Research shows that people with serious mental illness commit less than 1% of annual gun-related homicides, and the percent of annual violent crime committed by people with serious mental illness is only about 3%. Given this data, we run the risk of oversimplifying the problem and making assumptions that do not have supporting evidence.
I am used to having clients tell me they do not want to be in my office. They may feel forced by parents to attend, they may not think they have a problem, or they may be overwhelmed at the prospect of talking about the distress they have worked so hard to minimize, avoid, and protect themselves from. I have also heard them talk about how others would look down on them or treat them differently if they new they were in therapy. It’s because of this experience that I am sensitive to the language we use when talking about mental illness and the generalizations that are made about individuals experiencing depression, anxiety, or other forms of psychological distress.
Let’s talk about mental health, not just mental illness. Let’s agree to not use demeaning language like “crazy.” To say the least, it’s not helpful, but at worst, it could lessen the likelihood a child reaches out to their parent, social worker, or friend to ask for help. This isolation would likely contribute to worsening symptoms, less social support, and a less positive outcome. Treatment is not a quick and easy process. Let’s agree to reduce stigma by speaking carefully and gently about mental illness, recognizing that we all likely know someone that has or is experiencing some type of emotional disorder, and by affirming that there is great strength and courage in seeking help.
Other tips for talking about mental illness:
- Point out that they are real, just like medical diseases like diabetes or seizures, and common.
- Provide reassurance that there is treatment that helps most people.
- Affirm that their identity and value is not changed by a current mental illness.
- Use language your child can understand based on their age and maturity.
- Ask what they already know, and help correct assumptions and misinformation.
- Be willing to ask for help from a professional.