The University of Texas at Austin Latino Research Initiative

Your mom doesn’t think you have a problem, and that’s a problem.

Mon, November 5, 2018
Your mom doesn’t think you have a problem, and that’s a problem.
Photo by Jhon David

If you’re a kid, and you cut your finger, chances are high that your parent will put a Bandaid on it. That parent will also take you to the doctor, again and again: for shots, for an ear infection, for a weird rash, another ear infection, the flu, a broken arm. Your parent is the family problem solver -- that is, until it comes to mental illness. A study by Dr. Alice Villatoro of the Latino Research Initiative and her colleagues show that parents confronted with mental illness symptoms could identify mental illness in other children. When they looked at their own children, however, the diagnosis was simple: there’s no problem.

Of course, anyone who has a kid in school, or is a kid in school, or reads the news, knows there is a problem. A recent story in TIME magazine reports that young people between the ages of 15 and 21 are showing the worst mental health of any generation yet recorded in the U.S. And no wonder: politics are full of hate, ICE is patrolling neighborhoods, and adolescents are literally caught in the cross-fire about gun control. And let’s not even get started about social media.

Current events may not directly cause mental illness, but they certainly contribute to high levels of stress and anxiety. Troublingly, they also contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Every time someone shoots people in a school or a synagogue or a church, or sends a pipe bomb through the mail, or (insert your own recent news story), the national gossip turns to the likely mental illness of the perpetrator. However, a recent study from the same Latino Research Initiative team shows that kids with mental illness are far more likely to be the recipient, rather than the perpetrator, of violent behavior – but still, is it any wonder that parents would be resistant to seeing mental illness in their own child?

For Dr. Villatoro, understanding mental health stigma in parents is critical to ensuring that children are receiving the care they need. The study notes that mental health problems in adolescents are increasing across the world, not just in the U.S., and that fewer than half of adolescents with a disorder receive treatment. “Left untreated,” the study notes, “poor mental health can negatively impact adult outcomes, including unemployment, low income, and limited social mobility.”

There are a few glimmers of hope in all of this. Effective treatment does exist for mental health disorders. This study suggests that exposure to different mental health problems increases parents’ ability to recognize problems in their own children. Parents remain the gatekeepers for their children’s health, but as children themselves become more aware of mental health and mental illness, they can help shift the conversation away from stigma and towards treatment.

The study proposes that “public anti-stigma intervention efforts may help reduce stigma among parents at the population level and fill the problem recognition gap for adolescents so that the onus does not lie on afflicted families alone.” That is, it’s all of our jobs to get kids the help they need to navigate this increasingly complicated and often terrifying world. It’s not somebody else’s problem.

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