Our son has a mental illness and we are afraid of getting school accommodations because they might “label” our child. How can we protect him from the negative stigma associated with mental illnesses?

Q: Our son has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Our child psychiatrist is recommending that we notify the school and try to get accommodations for our son. He is having a lot of trouble in school and while we would like to help him in this area, we are nervous about “labeling” our son because of the negative stigma surrounding mental disorders. If we tell the school about his diagnosis, and an IEP is written, what can we do to prevent our son’s diagnosis from being viewed negatively by the teachers and staff?

A: Any parent would be hesitant to have their child labeled; however, if the school professionals do not have all the pertinent information about your child, then they are unable to fully help because pieces of the puzzle are missing. Also, while you have every right to keep your child’s diagnosis private, you must also realize that you may be risking his safety if he were to have anything happen at school (reactions to medication, for example).

When you speak with the school about his diagnosis, be upfront and honest about your concerns and also about your expectation that this diagnosis and any surrounding decisions as part of his behavior plan or IEP be kept confidential. All school systems are bound by federal mandates that require information about a child, including his diagnosis, evaluation results, and IEP, be kept confidential. Schools must have procedures for this and must inform parents on how they keep confidentiality intact.

Another idea is to use your current child psychiatrist as part of your child’s committee, if he/she is willing. Parents have the right to bring any person who has knowledge of their child to part of the planning process. Many times, doctors and other professionals can help school personnel to see the positive side of things and can also help ensure that the plan developed is right for your child. Also, please remember that while there is negative stigma surrounding a mental health diagnosis, the school officials are on your side and only want the best for your son. Partnering with them and working together as a team is the best situation for your son to succeed.