'My Child Has Bipolar Disorder, But Please Don't Punish Her For It'

04/03/2015 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015
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The stigma surrounding mental-health conditions is very real, and it can be devastating for children who experience it. Take Tara, 11, who started being left out of activities once she told her best friend, Amanda, that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When Tara asked Amanda why she wouldn't play with her anymore, Amanda confessed: "My mom said I should stay away from you. She said you were probably 'crazy' and might do something strange."

Tara's mom, Alexis, was heartbroken for her daughter. "I just don't know what to do," Alexis said when she sought professional help. "She's not a bad kid. I just wish people wouldn't judge without even knowing her. It's so unfair."

For generations, people with mental-health conditions have faced stigma -- prejudice that stems from misinformation, a lack of understanding, and media sensationalism that often paints a woefully inaccurate picture of mental illness. Gradually the stigma is fading for certain mental health conditions such as depression and ADHD but for others -- like bipolar disorder -- people are still quick to assign labels.

Tara's situation has motivated Alexis to help her daughter and involve other parents, who can teach their children about stigma and empathy. Here are a few things she, and others in her situation, would like parents to know about the stigma of mental health and how it impacts children like her daughter:

My child's "bad" behavior is not her fault.

Please don't think of Tara as a "bad" kid. Mental-health challenges can often lead to emotional and behavioral issues that may cause other parents and school administrators to think of children as a "problem" rather than a person in need of support. If you can understand the reasons behind the behavior, we're already off to a better start.

If you have concerns or are uncomfortable, let me know.

If we have known each other for a long time and our kids have been playing together since they were little, I'd love for you to know more about Tara's condition so that you and your kids won't be afraid of her. If our kids are new friends, I want to assure you that Tara is getting the support she needs and is doing well. I'm happy to share more about my daughter if you would like.

Please educate yourself about mental health and stigma.

Even if your child doesn't have a mental-health condition, it's important know about them and the impact of stigma on kids and families. Knowledge is so important, and many non-profits and health-care providers are working to end mental-health stigma. There is a lot of good information available online, including the National Institute of Mental Health and Time to Change.

Help your child learn more about my child's condition.

Once you have more knowledge, you can teach your kids about Tara and others with mental-health challenges, and help them be more empathetic. It would be helpful if you passed the information on to other parents, too. The more children and families know, the less likely they are to treat Tara differently than other children.

Please don't leave my child out.

It breaks my heart when Tara isn't invited to participate, especially when the girls at school are talking about a birthday party they were at or the movie they are going to see together next weekend. All children want to be included. Maybe we could arrange some activities together where the kids can play and we can supervise - things like bowling or ice skating, for example. That will help you and the kids feel more comfortable around Tara, and she won't feel so isolated.

Has your child experienced the pain caused by mental health stigma? Do you have a friend whose child is dealing with similar issues? Please share your stories and offer ideas to help other parents.

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