When children are treated unfairly and discriminated against because of who they are, this can have a detrimental effect on their mental health, their self-esteem, their hopefulness about life and their educational performance.
It is important that schools understand who might be at risk of discrimination, what they should do to minimise discrimination and how they can buffer and support children and families who may be at risk of being discriminated against.
What is discrimination?
The Equality Act 2010 defines discrimination as treating a person unfairly because of who they are or because they possess certain protected characteristics. The Act describes these characteristics as: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin), religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.
Discrimination can be direct or indirect. Direct discrimination occurs when a child is treated differently (at school or in their community) because of one of these protected characteristics.
Indirect discrimination is when a child is treated in the same way as other pupils, but it has an adverse effect on that child because of who they are. So, for example, if a school policy is applied in the same way to everyone but it puts a disabled pupil at a disadvantage.
Discrimination may be harmful because of:
- The higher likelihood of being exposed to bullying which is harmful to children’s mental health and life chances.
- Feeling different or ‘less than’ other children in some way. Over time, this can be isolating and have a wear and tear effect on children’s self-esteem, escalating risk of poor mental health.
- Lack of opportunity (due to discriminatory decision-making or to stereotypes of children and communities) leading again to lower self-belief and self-worth, powerlessness, frustration, reduced aspirations and an inability to reach their full potential.
Exposure to ongoing discrimination is an important risk factor for poor mental health. Children who experience discrimination will be affected in different ways. How they react will be influenced by a number of other factors including how confident they are about asking for help, the support they receive, the number of other risk factors they face, and their ability to be resilient (roll over) and move forward.
If you want to find out more about how risk factors conspire to affect a child’s mental health, the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard has an excellent video on risks and promoting resilience.
Mental illness, discrimination and stigma
It’s important to remember that stigma and discrimination also affects adults and children with mental illnesses. Whereas most physical illnesses, such as having cancer, attract compassion and supportive responses, people with mental illnesses often report hiding or fearing talking about their illness because they are made to feel ashamed, somehow ‘less than’ or devalued as a person.