Teaching My Daughter to Rise Above the Stigma of Mental Illness

My daughter has seen me. She has seen me throughout her 11 years of life. She has seen me lose touch with reality several times, seen me cry uncontrollably many times, seen me at a handful of psychiatric and therapy appointments. She has even seen me become hospitalized. Throughout all of this, she has stood by my side supporting me any way a preteen can. She will get me my medication and water when I have an anxiety attack. She will tell me she doesn’t want any other mommy when I say she deserves better. She fights the stigma behind mental illness for me to “infinity and beyond” (a “Toy Story” line that defines how much we love
each other).

But, even with all she does to help me, she falls victim to the stigma when it comes to herself.

My daughter was diagnosed at age 6 with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a diagnosis that seemed accurate even at age 4. She feared doctors or, honestly, anything medical. She catastrophisized thoughts in her mind, constantly thinking she could catch diseases such as Ebola and rabies just by breathing it in. While these medically induced anxieties faded through the years, she still tends to get overwhelmed and will have minor panic attacks over things she can’t control. She is easily frustrated. She cries. She’s a worrier, and a huge empath like myself.

There have been several occasions when school was a trigger. When she started elementary school, they placed my daughter in the Special Friends program at my request. It was a program dedicated to giving young children a place to relax for an hour and talk about their feelings. I loved this program. She aged out after second-grade. At this point, we started therapy for her to learn coping skills for when anxiety attacks hit. This helped for a while, and she was able to stop therapy for a year or two. Enter a few major life events, moving and entering middle school, and her anxieties came back full force. Insomnia set in. Panic attacks over homework became present and therapy sessions returned.

Through all of this, I have been her advocate. I do not want to see her going through what I have. There was a brief discussion last year with the school nurse about possibly getting her further help, such as a 509 report within the school system. She had been sent home because she threw up. The nurse knew right away after seeing my daughter through the years that this was related to her GAD, but due to the rules, I had to pick my daughter up and keep her home for 24 hours. The nurse said that if this was in her file, she could return to school the next day bypassing the required 24 hours. I thought heavily on this and suggested to my daughter that we get the school more involved.

Her response: “I don’t want special treatment. There are kids that need it more.”

I respected that answer since the school year was almost over and we were switching school systems. She started middle school and things were OK for a short period of time. Then I noticed her getting heavily overwhelmed, crying and panicking. I brought the subject of getting more help from the school with her again. She hesitated and replied: “I don’t want special treatment.”

I explained to her it wasn’t special treatment. Her diagnosis, which is in her medical file at the school, would be more known so that if she did have further issues, she could receive the help she needed, whether it be visits to the school psychologist or extra time on a test. Then she started to tear up a bit and said, “No, I don’t want it.  The kids will make fun of me and my friends won’t like me anymore.”

Oh boy. Enter the mental health stigma. Because I have been fighting it so long, the huge advocate in me came out and I may have reacted a tad too intimidating for an 11-year-old. I was angry. I thought the world had become slightly better with mental illness, but maybe I was wrong. I spoke, with a seething rage inside my head, sternly to my daughter:

“Do not feel that way at all. Do not, for one second, be ashamed of your diagnosis. So, you have an anxiety disorder. You have no idea what other kids at your school may have. Most likely a few of your friends have one, too. All that you just said, that is the stigma talking. You do not have to hide like I did.”

She began to cry a little. She knew I was right, especially after being such a support and advocate for me. She nodded her head, apologized and went upstairs. I didn’t know if it really sunk in until one afternoon she came home from school and was excited to show me a video she was working on in school for one of her classes. I sat and watched the video and was so enamored and proud of this child. Here she stood, in the crowded hallways of her school talking about her anxiety disorder. She didn’t care if anyone heard her. She spoke confidently about coping skills and therapy. My daughter isn’t hiding anymore. She’s kicking the stigma to the curb, just like her mom.

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Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s daughter.

Getty image by monkeybusinessimages

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