About tackling stigma

What is stigma?

The term stigma has been around for a long time. It originates from ancient Greek, where it was used as the term for a visible mark or brand placed on members of tainted groups, such as slaves or traitors. Nowadays, stigma is defined as shame and disgrace. It sets people apart and can be hurtful and dangerous. It is based on myths and misunderstandings and it is always negative. It can make it difficult for someone to be accepted by others and can lead to discrimination.

Stigma associated with mental health problems can cause people, through no fault of their own, to find themselves denied help, education, employment, social interaction, their families and homes, and other basic rights that most of us take for granted. No one should have to hide their mental health problems or illness or be subjected to the severe effects that stigma can have.

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What impact can stigma have on children and young people?

Although we often think of stigma in relation to the experiences of adults, there is also potential for the effects of stigma to impact on children and young people. It can reduce access to mental health services, create fear, marginalisation and low self-esteem in children, and diminish the effectiveness of treatment and interventions.

Stigma can have such a significant effect that there is a potential for mental health problems to increase in severity. Some children and their families have said that the experience of stigma has been described as equal to and sometimes worse than having a mental health problem.

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The stigmatisation process – why does it happen?

There are at least two main reasons why stigmatisation occurs.

The first is fear of people with mental health problems, because of perceived aggression and unpredictable behaviour. There can also be fears that individuals with mental illness have criminal intentions towards us.

The second relates to concerns that there can be a fine line between so-called normal experience and mental health problems. It is often easier to see mental health problems as belonging to others (i.e. the them-and-us concept) as this allows individuals not to have to consider the vulnerability we all have to experiencing mental health problems. A fear of the unknown and an unwillingness to be open about mental illness can perpetuate prejudice.

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Why tackle stigma?

Stigmatising attitudes towards mental health and those who experience mental health problems can be found within individuals, families, communities and society, as well as within organisations at a professional, strategic and even a policy making level. Negative attitudes may begin to develop in children as young as age three or four. Some people hold the view that little can be done to address the problems of stigmatisation.

As it is apparent that stigma can affect children and young people across many situations, it is vital that it is tackled in places that it can be found, through a multi-faceted approach. Tackling stigma can help to remove the profound effects that it can have on individuals. It helps them to get the support they need and helps services to provide responsive and appropriate interventions, at the right time. Tackling stigma and reducing the harm it can have on individuals is the responsibility of us all.

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Talking about children’s mental health – what do you mean?

There can be a tendency to avoid using terms such as mental health and there has been an emerging preference to use terms that exclude the word mental. This can reinforce the idea that mental is a negative term.

The attitudes of mental health professionals can help shape attitudes towards those with mental health problems. Therefore, those working in the mental health field need to ensure that they do not subconsciously change their language to accommodate prejudice, and that they all work to agreed definitions of mental health and use the same language when talking about it.

Although this seems quite a simple area to tackle, it is probably one of the most important and it has to involve children and young people from the outset.

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Who should be tackling stigma?

When considering who should be tackling stigma in your area, it is important to consider who is working with children who may have mental health needs. Given what was said earlier about the possibility of the development of stigmatising beliefs in pre-school children, and the fact that stigma can be pervasive and found across society, then it would seem that tackling stigma should include all those who work with children and their families.

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Who is this toolkit for?

This toolkit is for all professionals, partnerships and organisations who commission and provide mental health services for children and young people.

It aims to help professionals think about how to tackle stigma across a number of domains and to help organisations consider who might be involved in order to have the greatest impact.

More importantly, it will help to ensure that children and young people are at the centre of local plans, so that they can be involved in decision-making about the choices available to them.

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