Voices’ Blog

The Effect of Stigma

Posted:  -  By: Voices for VA's Kids

Campaign Coordinator Margaret Nimmo Crowe’s latest blog posting on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Pundits’ Podium:

Yesterday, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed into law the “EpiPen bills,” commendable legislation which requires local school divisions to have EpiPens available at each school in Virginia so that school employees can prevent a child with food allergies from dying of anaphylactic shock. According to news reports, the bills were partly introduced as a result of the tragedy in Chesterfield of 7-year-old Amarria Johnson, who died in January at her school after being exposed to a peanut. This is April, and already we have funding ($200,000 in the state budget just passed to purchase EpiPens) and a law in place to help prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.

That’s pretty remarkable. Especially when you compare it with the impact that kids dying because of, say, suicide has on the legislative process. Children have been suffering from serious mental health disorders for years – ending up in psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment facilities and, sadly, ending their lives – and until this legislative session, their voices have often gone unheard.

I am pleased to say that our lawmakers did hear the cry this year: the budget approved by the General Assembly and now awaiting Gov. McDonnell’s approval includes $3.3 million over the biennium for funding child psychiatry and community-based crisis response services for kids. The champions of this funding, including budget patrons Sen. Emmett Hanger and Del. John O’Bannon, as well as Senator Walter Stosch, deserve credit for recognizing the urgent need to treat children with serious disorders. The children’s mental health community is immensely grateful for this important step toward improving our mental health system for kids.

But there’s something about the juxtaposition of these two children’s health issues that I can’t ignore, and that’s the ongoing stigma of mental illness.

Thankfully, the general public does not blame parents for their children’s food allergies. Parents routinely are blamed for their children’s mental health problems, though, not only by neighbors and acquaintances, but sometimes by the very people who are supposed to help their children. Not only does a parent have to go through the struggle of coping with their child’s illness and trying to find effective treatment, but many parents also experience being shunned, isolated, and blamed for causing their child’s illness.

I would submit to you that except in cases of abuse, neglect or other trauma in the immediate family, parents are no more to blame for their children’s mental illnesses than they are for their children’s food allergies.

I greatly admire Amarria’s family for being able to step forward and speak publicly about such a personal tragedy. As Gov. McDonnell said in The Washington Post, “‘It is rare to find some people that can find their way through their tears and their heartache and their personal loss, to want to go out and do something that will only help other people — in other words, prevent another mom or another family from having to endure a loss from somebody going into anaphylactic shock from a food allergy,’ he said. ‘This is a woman of immense character.’”

Given the stigma of mental illness, I have great admiration and respect for the parents of children with these disorders who have spoken about their children’s experiences in the hopes of preventing similar struggles and heartaches for other families. Many of them did just that during the past legislative session, and they deserve to be recognized as well.

I am pleased that we have “Amarria’s Law” to help prevent tragedy for children with food allergies. This year, courageous families and supportive legislators took a first step to prevent similar tragedies for children with mental illness. We owe it to our children to stay the course.

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