Combating Stigma of Children’s Mental Illness

By Crystal Coleman, Director, Clinical Services, The Children’s Center, Detroit

Throughout Michigan Community Mental Health System of care we are always looking at ways to reduce barriers to treatment. It is one of those topics that never gets old.

We have established practices, policies, protocols, and quality and compliance standards from the local—and stretching to the federal level—in our efforts to get individuals to our front door. We require and ensure that appointments are scheduled within 14 days or sooner, hoping that this will increase the likelihood for families showing up. We offer evening, walk in, and weekend hours for the convenience of our families. We assist with transportation. We ensure that our staff and offices are warm and welcoming. I’m certain that each agency has developed various creative ways to open their doors to our communities. Despite all of these efforts across continua, we continue to find a need to reduce barriers to treatment. Why is that?

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) holds that 20% of youth ages 13 to 18 live with a mental health condition and that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in youth ages 15–24. NAMI also shows that the average amount of time from onset of symptoms to intervention is 8–10 years. That leaves our children and youth at a grave disadvantage which of course holds the potential to translate into further disadvantages in adulthood.

The 2015 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book shows that in 2014 there was a 31% increase (from 2006 to 2012) of confirmed child victims of abuse and neglect. It also shows an increase in teen (ages 15-19) death rates as a result of homicide (12 per 10,000) or suicide (10 per 10,000). The prevalence of mental illness, alarming and increasing rates of suicide, child abuse and neglect, as well as trauma related to violence and crime, suggests that our community is filled with children and families who could benefit from services.

If we are offering individuals an opportunity to change and improve significant challenges to their lives and support in making those changes, then why are they not knocking down our doors? Perhaps the major hurdle to tackle comes well before an appointment is offered.

The true barrier that must be overcome in order to create the opportunity for someone to walk through our doors is stigma. The Children’s Center, just as other community mental health agencies have done, has decided that in order to reach the individuals who do not willfully walk into the doors of our agency, we must offer services to children and families in settings that are a natural part of their lives.

Our Community Based Partnerships program has partnered with Detroit Public Schools, Community Schools, Education Achievement Authority, Detroit Charter Schools, Children’s Hospital of Michigan Specialty Clinic, and Detroit Community Health Connection. Even in these settings, we have learned that being physically present is not enough. While this accessibility increases student’s ability to engage with a school based therapist, being within these settings has not significantly decreased teachers and administrators labeling of children and placing consequences before treatment. It also has not increased parent’s participation in understanding and managing their child’s symptoms and behaviors. Additionally, mainstream entertainment and news media often portrays individuals with mental illness in such negative light that it leads to fear and judgement and avoidance and shame rather than understanding and empathy for individuals experiencing these symptoms.

In order to reduce stigma related to mental illness, we must:

  1. Change the way that society, our community, talks about, views, and experiences mental illness by dispelling the myths that media perpetuates by pro-viding the community with true, proven data and facts on a wide spectrum.
  2. Help individuals understand that both mental health and mental illness occur on a spectrum and edu-cate community members on early signs and symp-toms of mental illness so that children can begin to receive early assessment, intervention, and services.
  3. Maintain the systems that have been put into place to allow convenient access to treatment and services once individuals have made the decision to seek treatment.

In the coming years, The Children’s Center looks forward to shifting our focus from reducing physical barriers to accessing mental health services to increasing the community’s and our partners’ education, awareness and understanding of mental illness and combating stigma. Join us and take the NAMI pledge to be “Stigmafree” at www.

To download a PDF of the Fall 2016 issue of Connections, visit:

About Connections

Connections is a quarterly publication produced by Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards. It is designed to help build and enhance the relationships people need to be successful in achieving their goals. Its purpose is to be an avenue for the exchange of information that includes people’s dreams, stories, concerns, successes, etc. Its intent is to connect us all – the individuals who sit around the board room table, our customers, our administrators, caregivers, and our partners in the communities in which we live. People who are working every day to realize our vision for a higher quality of life for everyone in our communities.

About Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards

The Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards was created in 1967 to support county mental health services programs (CMHSPs) in promoting, maintaining and improving a comprehensive range of community-based mental health services, which enhance the quality of life, promote the emotional well-being, and contribute to healthy and secure communities which benefit all of Michigan’s citizens. To learn more, visit



This article is reprinted with permission by the author and from Connections, Fall 2016, a quarterly publication published by Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards.

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