13-year-old tells 100 strangers about her mental illness and its stigma, and a newspaper writes an important story

By Al Cross, Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

The stigma that still surround mental illness and drug addiction, especially in rural areas, are major obstacles to addressing those issues. Rural news media can play an important role in reducing stigma and helping individuals and communities face up to their problems and deal with them. The Paducah Sun saw that opportunity when a 13-year-old eighth grader with a long list of mental-health issues told nearly 100 attendees at the third annual West Kentucky Health and Wellness Summit about her condition and its stigma.

Julia Burkhart has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but “When she walks down the hall, you wouldn’t know her from any other student,” David B. Snow reported for the Sun: “There are no identifying marks or signs on her to indicate she has mental illness. The problem is the signs placed on her by other people.”

At the meeting in Paducah, Julia said her problems began with bullying in kindergarten, which became so bad in fifth grade, with social-media attacks and rumors that something was “wrong” with her, that she started cutting herself. She changed schools and got better, but recently relapsed into eating disorders and taking pills “to escape,” she said. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and went back into the outpatient program at the beginning of this school year, Snow reports.

“I graduated in February from outpatient, and I’ve been continuing to better myself,” Julia told the crowd. “And here I am now, speaking about my problems. I take pride in my recovery every day, and I am proud to have gone through this. It’s made me realize what’s really important.” And she spoke because she wanted to; her mothervwas originally invited to share the family’s story.

Snow wrote that Julia’s experience is common among people with mental illness. Dr. Laurie Ballew, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Lourdes Hospital, told him, “People have this negative thought process about mental health, not realizing that our brain is the organ that controls our body.”

Snow’s story is a remarkable example of how news media can reduce or eliminate the stigma that surround issues of behavioral health. We hope to see more such stories.

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