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Soci​ety's Stigma: Depressed Children

March 29, 2007
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New research suggests that Americans are more likely to socially reject children with mental illness than they are those with physical illnesses like asthma.

"Many respondents did not want their children to become friends with other kids identified as having mental illnesses or have them come over to spend an evening socializing," said Jack Martin, Ph.D., lead author of the study, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

The Indiana University research team looked at data from a national face-to-face interview of adults who were given descriptions of children of various ages with symptoms that were similar to asthma, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or "normal troubles."

"We used asthma as a baseline condition because it represents a physical problem with a known and standard treatment," said Martin, executive director of the university's Karl Schuessler Institute for Social Research in Bloomington. "We wanted to see if Americans felt differently about a child with a mental-health problem."

Almost 30 percent of the 1,134 participants said that they would not like their child to become friends of a child with depression, and almost one in four said the same thing about ADHD. Roughly 20 percent said they did not want a child with either ADHD or depression living next door.

But when asked about friendships with children with "normal troubles" and asthma symptoms, negative responses dropped to 10 percent or less in all categories.

"[People] aren't as concerned, however, if a child with mental illness is in the same class as their child or if a child with mental illness moved into their neighborhood," said Martin. "This study suggests that a large number of Americans just don't want their kids to be spending time with other kids suffering from ADHD or depression."

David Rabiner, Ph.D., director of undergraduate studies in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said that the study "highlights the difficulty that parents of a child with mental-health problems ... can have in helping their child make friends and be accepted by peers."

Rabiner, who was not involved with the study, added that "identifying ways to reduce the stigma that children with mental-health problems may often contend with is an issue that parents, professionals, researchers and educators should join forces to address." 

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