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Breaking Mental Illness Stigmas & Myths: Parents Can Help

Posted by Caitlin Burgess

The day of September 27, 2012 started out as an ordinary day for me, but I suppose most people say that before the unthinkable happens.

It was a Thursday, and by some miracle I was ahead of my work for the day, so I was going to call it quits a little early. But while I finished my work, a tragedy was unfolding just a few miles away.  Thirty-six-year-old Andrew Engeldinger open fired on his co-workers at Accent Signage in Minneapolis before turning the gun on himself, culminating in the deadliest workplace shooting in Minnesota history. According to Andrew’s parents, he had been suffering from mental illness for a number of years.

In the days following the shooting, Andrew’s parents, Chuck and Carolyn, appeared on local news networks to make their painful statement. They said they had lost contact with their son nearly two years before, after he refused to get treatment for what they believed were symptoms of schizophrenia, including delusions and paranoia. Andrew was never clinically diagnosed.

Just 10 weeks after Accent Signage, the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre broke. As the reports came in, I couldn’t help but think of the Minneapolis shooting, of Andrew’s victims, and Chuck and Carolyn. And the Aurora movie theater. And Virginia Tech. And Columbine.

In the wake of these tragedies, a new light has been shed on mental illness. Some politicians are working on legislation to address the gaps in the healthcare system, news organizations are telling the stories of those who struggle with disorders, and well, it’s just simply being talked about. But, the next time there’s an incident, what assumptions do you think will be made about the perpetrator’s mental state?

Unfortunately, there are stigmas and myths surrounding mental illness. And while it may seem impossible to change people’s perceptions, I think parents can help.

Be Aware

Studies show that 90 percent of mental disorders manifest themselves in childhood, and it’s estimated that one in five kids will have some sort of mental disorder. But, only 20 percent of children with mental disorders are diagnosed and treated.

These numbers aren’t meant to scare you into questioning every single behavioral outburst or issue your child has, but rather to encourage you to be proactive about getting your child the help he or she needs if serious symptoms begin to present themselves.

What should you be looking for? Number one on the list: changes in your child’s mood that cause issues with relationships at home or at school, as well as dramatic changes in personality or behavior. Intense feelings such as overwhelming fear for no apparent reason, difficulty concentrating, physical harm, substance abuse and unexplained weight loss are other things to watch for.

If you are concerned by your child’s behavior, do a little investigating. Don’t brush them off. Talk with your child’s friends, other family members or teachers to see if they have noticed any changes. And, of course, talk to your child’s doctor and tell them what you’ve found out.

Know the Facts

The biggest myth of all is that mental illness and violence go hand-in-hand, and unfortunately, recent well publicized tragedies contribute to that perception. The simple fact is that anyone can be violent. Research shows that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and are actually more likely to be victims of violence.

Another myth that’s been hanging around for years is that bad parenting causes mental illness, and that is far from the truth. While I can’t report this for sure, I’m fairly confident that the Engeldingers felt and still feel the eyes of judgment upon them. They said they had Andrew cremated to spare their other children the sight of someone protesting at his burial or desecrating his grave.

It’s true that a kid’s home environment and relationship with his or her parents can trigger symptoms, but studies show a full range of psychiatric disorders are often the result of biology. Many times disorders are even inherited.
And finally, mental illness doesn’t mean your child can’t have a full and happy life. Just like heart disease or diabetes mental illness is a disease. And just like heart disease or diabetes, mental illness can be treated and recovery is possible.

Please note that the information contained in this blog is an overview and does not account for every possible warning sign of mental illness.  If you are concerned that your child may have a mental illness, speak to their doctor right away.  For more information and resources regarding mental illness, check out the Empowering Parents’ resources page or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


About Caitlin Burgess

Caitlin Burgess was born and raised in the Minneapolis metro area, and now lives with her fiancé in downtown St. Paul, Minn. Caitlin spent a little over four years as a community journalist and now works in blogging, contributing and online marketing. She's also a guest writer for Allison Holt & Associates, a Twin Cities-based psychiatry practice that works with children, adolescents and adults. All the views expressed in Caitlin's posts are her own.

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