Fighting Back Against Stigma: A Response

By Pauline Campos 06/23/17

Our job is to fight stigma with advocacy, education, and pride. Labels, I think, are not horrible life-long shackles, but answers to the questions we never knew we had.

A group of happy teens with skateboards and headphones

The Fix published a piece by writer Karen Hunt on March 17, 2016, titled, Happily Slipping Into Our Straightjackets. The piece ran with an illustration of an open-mouthed boy running, his straightjacket seeming to come undone. The caption for the image reads, “Little ADHD pills don’t seem like straight-jackets - but they are.” If you missed it, please note that there are multiple trigger warnings that should be noted before clicking over to the original piece, including mention of attempted suicide, referring to the medication of children as “mind rape,” and assertions that the DSM-5 is a modern-day fairy-tale dreamed up by the American Psychiatric Association

Full Disclosure: Trigger warnings apply to this response, as well. My reason for sharing something which may be upsetting to those currently struggling is because I believe the more we talk, the less responses like this will have to be written, and also to let my readers know they are not alone. I am a 39-year-old woman with severe ADHD, diagnosed just five years ago. ADHD does not manifest in adulthood without having been present as a child, which means I developed the condition as a child but slipped under the radar, as females with ADHD often do. I also have been diagnosed as having depression, anxiety, dermatillomania, (obsessive compulsive skin picking), and Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD).

I survived a suicide attempt in college, am a life-long recovering bulimic with body image issues, and will always struggle with binge and compulsive eating when depressed and/or anxious.

Perhaps most importantly, I am prescribed and take medications to manage my conditions. There is no shame in this, no matter what Hunt would have you believe, nor is there any shame in making the difficult decision to medicate a child -- with a legitimate diagnosis of ADHD, depression, or a number of other conditions -- taking into account recommendations from your child’s medical and psychiatric care team and closely monitoring your child and their response to treatment. Choosing to medicate yourself or your child doesn't make you a bad person and it sure as hell does not mean your third-grader is destined to become the playground drug kingpin. As evidenced in Hunt’s writings (which include discounting ADHD and the rest of the contents of the DSM-5), it’s far too easy to believe the lies the stigma associated with mental illness continue to perpetuate. 

Mental health conditions, Hunt tells us, are mostly imaginary, created by people trying to sell us medications we don’t really need. She tries to convince us that depression and anxiety and ADHD are nothing more than labels, shackling us for life and screwing up our faith in ourselves. 

How we frame our own mental health journeys trickles down to how our children view themselves if they are diagnosed with a mental health condition, cognitive difference, or learning disability. Case in point? When my 9-year-old recently was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and dysgraphia, she didn't even bat an eye. Instead, she began referring to autism as her superpower. There is a certain freedom that comes with not only embracing our mental health challenges, but celebrating what makes us who we are, as well. 

My response to Hunt’s work isn’t meant for her, or, in fact, for anyone who has already made up their minds that mental health problems are imaginary. No amount of logic can unlock a closed mind. My focus on ADHD is a reflection of Hunt’s treatment of the condition in Straightjackets. There are many reasons why Hunt and Co. think the way they do, from anti-psychiatry to parent-blaming to the misguided belief that environmental causes are the sole cause of ADHD symptoms in our children. I invite you to read the International Consensus Statement on ADHD here. 

To be fair, Hunt was not all wrong. She is partially right in stating that ADHD is over-diagnosed in children. Recent studies have shown that the condition is over-diagnosed in boys and under-diagnosed in both girls and women. However, the mere fact that too many kids are being treated for the condition does not mean that the condition does not actually exist. In fact, the argument can be made that more individuals are being diagnosed now than ever before because we know more about the condition and how it presents.

Simply stated, ADHD is a brain-based, biological disorder with thousands of conclusive studies -- proving the validity of the condition and its diagnosis -- far outnumbering the countless misperceptions that still prevail today. According to The Child Mind Institute, an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children affected by these conditions, studies show that over 80 percent of pediatric ADHD patients respond positively to medication. Of that 80 percent, about half will respond equally to the two main classes of ADHD medications (branded as Ritalin and Adderall, most commonly).

Hunt’s alarmist hand-wringing isn’t good for anyone. Parents question their own motives, wondering if they have made a horrible mistake, even when all other avenues have been attempted and their child is thriving. Teens in the depths of despair may be triggered to attempt suicide, due to a phenomenon known as contagion or copycat suicide. Adults find themselves defending their mental health challenges and fighting a stigma that they can’t seem to shake. 

The Association for Psychological Science says that over 60 million Americans are thought to experience mental health problems in a given year. But even when evidence-based treatment is available, only about 60 percent of individuals with serious mental illness receive care, and of those who begin treatment, many fail to stick to their medically prescribed treatment plan. According to a report published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, stigma is a “significant barrier” that keeps people from seeking or complying with treatment.

The bottom line is this: I believe that people like Hunt and the stigma she perpetuates in Straightjackets will always exist. Our job is to fight that stigma with advocacy, education, and pride. Labels, I think, are not horrible life-long shackles, but answers to the questions we never knew we had.

Medication saves lives. 

Knowledge is power. Validation of our experiences empowers others. We must educate those willing to listen, teach our children living with mental health challenges that they are capable of anything and that they are loved and valued and worthy of the respect they deserve, and to keep putting our voices and our stories out into the world.

This is how we win. 

You Are Not Alone

Recently diagnosed with a mental health condition or looking for support for yourself and/or your child?

Check out these resources for more information and support in fighting stigma:

Stigma Fighters - national non-profit supporting those dealing with mental illness

The Child Mind Institute: an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children affected by mental illness

National Alliance of Mental Illness: the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness

The American Academy of Child and Pediatric Psychiatry: widely distributes information with the purpose of promoting an understanding of mental illnesses and removing the stigma associated with them; advance efforts in prevention of mental illnesses, and assure proper treatment and access to services for children and adolescents.

Trigger Warning/How to Get Help

If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. You are not alone.

Options include:

  • Calling the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Calling 911
  • Calling a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you. 
Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Pauline Campos is an artist, Aspie-Mom, and author of Be Your Own F*cking Sunshine: An Inspirational Journal for People Who Like to Swear. ADHD is her superpower. Pauline Lives in Minnesota, but will always be from Detroit. Find her at Twitter: @pauline_campos.