It's a story that's gained traction in the national media: Rather than tolerating the normal rambunctiousness of children, parents are turning to counseling and medication. However, new NIMH-funded research suggests that just the opposite may be true—parents fear that diagnoses such as depression or ADHD will stigmatize their children, and they may avoid treatment as a result, says Bernice Pescosolido, PhD, head of the National Stigma Study—Children and a sociology professor at Indiana University.
"I don't know one parent who had to make this decision who didn't struggle mightily with it," she says.
Specifically, the nationally representative survey of Americans, published in Psychiatric Services (Vol. 58, No. 5) found that:
• 45 percent believe mental health treatment makes children an outsider at school.
• 43 percent say children suffer as adults if others learn about their past mental health treatment.
• 57 doubt that confidentiality protections work to keep community members from finding out about children's mental health treatment.
• 81 percent report that childhood depression is the parents' fault.
Overall, the results suggest that people are less stigmatizing of children with mental health problems than they are of adults, but that parents fear a diagnosis may follow children throughout their life, limiting their opportunities, says study co-author Jane McLeod, PhD, a sociology professor at Indiana University.
Their concerns are well-founded, she says.
"Whether because of the symptoms of the disorders themselves, or because of the stigmatizing responses of others, children with emotional and behavioral problems have a lot of trouble as they transition into adulthood," says McLeod.