Mental illness is still a family secret

Parents are too embarrassed to seek help for kids, survey finds

May 04, 2007 04:30 AM

Family Issues Reporter

Too many Canadian youths suffering from depression and anxiety aren't getting treatmentbecause their families are embarrassed to seek help, according to two new studies.

In a survey released this week by Kinark Child and Family Services, Ontario's largest children's mental health centre, 38 per cent of Canadian adults said they would be embarrassed to admit their child or teen had a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression.

Last month's survey, involving 1,500 adults, also found that higher education and income levels did not translate to more understanding or acceptance: 40 per cent of university-educated adults surveyed, and 45 per cent of those earning incomes over $100,000, claimed they would be too uncomfortable to get help.

"With this huge percentage of the population embarrassed to admit, let alone discuss their child's struggles with mental health issues, we are a very long way from removing this painful and damaging stigma in Canada," said Kinark executive director Peter Moore.

"There's a sense of blame, families feel responsible and that it's their fault," he said. "There's still a huge general discomfort. It's an issue that has been in the shadows for generations and generations."

The Kinark survey coincides with Children's Mental Health Week, which begins Monday and is aimed at moving the issue up the public agenda. An estimated one in five Canadian children is struggling with a mental health problem.

This month's issue of American journal Psychiatric Services reports 85 per cent of adults in a recent study believe kids are overmedicated, 40 per cent believe kids with depression are a danger to others and 45 per cent believe that if treated they will face rejection at school.

Last month, a study by Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre also revealed how stigma can be a barrier to treating youths. The report, published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, found that almost 50 per cent of Canadian adolescents ages 15 to 24 who are depressed and suicidal are not accessing mental health services.

"This shows us that while this is pretty common among teens, only half are getting help," said youth psychiatrist Dr. Amy Cheung, the study's lead author.

She says teens often face several barriers to treatment their own shame, plus that of parents.

Early intervention is critical to successful treatment. Left undiagnosed and untreated, kids with mental illness, or behavioural disorders and focus problems, may drop out of school or engage in high-risk behaviours such as substance abuseor living on the street.

Many are at risk of suicide, which is the second leading cause of death among youth.

Cheung would like to see family doctors and pediatricians routinely raising mental health issues with teenage patients, much the way they talk about physical development or birth control.

And Moore suggests that more discussion in school health classes could help "normalize" mental health issues and encourage kids to talk about it.