Removing the Stigma

My 16-year old daughter is a 4.0 student with great friends and a darling boyfriend. She loves performing arts and her job in a boutique. Her father and I are happily married to each other. She’s college-bound, confident and ambitious. She also has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), ADHD, depression and anxiety.

I am writing this post anonymously not because I’m ashamed, or because she is. In fact, her condition is something we discuss openly with those who care about her and are interested. But I can’t use my name or her name in this article because we can’t risk future colleges, employers, sororities, and friends judging her based on her diagnoses. We can’t risk her future. And that’s what I’d like to see changed—not just for her, but for all teens suffering from mental illnesses. It’s time to remove the stigmas.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18. Girls are more likely than boys to experience depression. And the risk of depression increases as a child gets older. OCD is an anxiety disorder that often occurs with depression. Depression and ADHD also often go hand-in-hand, especially in girls who have the inattentive (non hyperactive) kind. My daughter just happens to have all of these conditions. And yet, she’s thriving.

“Mental illness” is hard to say, let alone discuss. When parents share that their child has diabetes or severe allergies, other parents and schools typically are empathetic and rush to provide the necessary support. It’s normal to discuss these conditions in casual social situations. Talking about how your child has depression or OCD is not normal. It can make people uncomfortable, and it can make the parents of the ill child feel embarrassed, as though it’s a personal shortcoming—the result of failed parenting. It shouldn’t be this way. With greater understanding and more open dialogue, there wouldn’t be the social stigma that currently affects both the teens and their parents. What’s needed is more awareness and less judgment.

When our daughter was diagnosed with OCD and clinical depression at age 12, we discussed treatment options with the psychiatrist. At first, we were wary of medication, as most parents are. “If your child had type 1 diabetes, wouldn’t you give her insulin?” the doctor asked. “This is a disease—in fact it’s a life threatening disease. Medication is required. And so is regular therapy.”

And that was the beginning of our journey to understanding that our daughter has an illness, it needs to be treated, and she requires ongoing special care. If depression isn’t addressed (and sometimes even when it is), it can lead to suicide. The anxiety and depression of college students has become practically epidemic in this country. I can’t help but wonder how many of those kids arrived on campus with untreated depression or anxiety disorders.

What does it feel like for my daughter to live with these illnesses? The answer, in part, can be found in a new novel from author Tamara Ireland Stone, a gifted writer and also one of my best friends. She took an interest in my daughter and her OCD, and began a dialogue with her. The result is a wonderful, moving, inspirational new young adult book called Every Last Word where the main character, Sam, has OCD. Initially, Sam feels trapped in a world she doesn’t want to be in, finally learning to find joy and true friendship by being her authentic self, OCD and all. (In a promising trend, other YA fiction is also tackling teens and mental illness.)

Tamara worked closely with my daughter to get it right. In one passage Sam tells the reader “the thoughts start gathering, butting up against the caution tape surrounding my brain, strategizing and preparing to rush in and take over. I hold them off, telling myself all the right things, repeating the mantras, taking deep breaths, counting slowly.”

Being your authentic self is challenging for any young person. But being your authentic self when your brain works differently from others, when you have dark thoughts that feel out of control, when it seems like everything comes easier for everyone around you—that’s another story.

In addition to the typical struggles teens face, living with mental challenges means getting hit with a debilitating anxiety attack when you least expect it, like at the prom or at the crowded concert of a band you love. It means sometimes missing important things the teacher just said, that everyone heard but you (and you don’t even know you missed something). And it means that some days, no matter what you do, you can’t shake the feeling of hopelessness.

Despite my daughter’s high functioning ability to walk through her life, mental illness is a reality for her, and for us her parents, every day. It requires ongoing monitoring, management, and advocacy. To parents who wonder if their child might have depression or an anxiety disorder, I urge you to consult with an adolescent psychiatrist. To parents who know that their child suffers from depression or anxiety, I urge you to take it seriously, and to treat it consistently and ongoing. Advocate for your child at school when needed. Confide in trusted friends and family so that your child has a network of support. And parent your child with an extra measure of grace.

To the rest of you, my request is simple. Recognize that many people around you live with mental illness, and that it’s part of every day life. Consider how you talk about the subject, and set aside judgment when you know someone is mentally challenged.

Remove the stigma associated with mental illness. Continue to learn about what it is and is not, and to talk about it. Treat those who need help—clinically, and with kindness. Give my daughter, and the many teens like her, a future and a hope.

Read more from Girls Leadership:

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This post’s title has been updated. 30 June 2015

  1. Brenda Marean

    Thank you for publishing this wonderful article; this family has “put it out there” for the benefit of so many of our teens. I thank them for all it took to make this public, impassioned statement. I hope all who read it will pass it on and who knows how many young men and women may be helped by reading it!!

  2. MommaJ

    AMEN!! There are so many (parents,public, educators, etc.) who believe a child (and then an adult) should be able to function “normally” without medication. Well, that would be ideal, but so it would be for pneumonia, bronchitis, and a whole host of other commonly treated illnesses. Unseen illnesses are the worst, because they are the most misunderstood, and sometimes the hardest to pinpoint and diagnose.

  3. Phil Sevetson

    God bless you for noticing that something was wrong with your daughter, and caring enough to follow through.

    When I was an adolescent in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I suffered with depression, anxiety, and obsessive thought patterns. Then, the pervasiveness of mental illness was unknown, and I was undiagnosed. I grew up with all the problems you have described your daughter having, and performed poorly, academically and in the rest of my life. I knew that I was different, but ascribed it to moral failings on my part — too “lazy” to do homework or clean my room, for one example.

    Because of advances made in the field(s), and because you paid attention to your child, she will not have to face the barriers and personal hell that I went through. It’s a very good thing. If you read this to her, tell her that we, who went before, are cheering for her.

    I have one further thing to offer; a few years ago, when I hit about 55, because of a move, I wound up going without medication for several months. I found out that I no longer need it in order to be successful and happy — my demons seem to have shrunk as I aged. I don’t, of course, know that this will be the case for others. But it’s possible, if it happened to me, that my experience will turn out not to have been unique.

    Keep the faith. Love your daughter. God bless you all.


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