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Lessons on Fighting Stigma from “Far From the Tree”

     

A newly released documentary deals with extreme situations faced by families, including the stigma around mental illness, and the journey that families must take as the parents and children come to accept one another for who they are.

“Far From the Tree” is a documentary based on the book of the same name by Andrew Solomon, a prolific writer and speaker and clinical professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center. Like the book before it, the film follows a number of families as they learn to cope with and accept disabilities or other characteristics in their children that set them apart from what society would consider “normal.”

Those profiled in the film deal with a wide variety of situations, characteristics or disorders that have left them far from the proverbial tree, including a man with Down syndrome, a small boy with autism and a woman with dwarfism. Andrew Solomon’s own challenging story of coming out as gay to his parents is also weaved throughout the film.

The most harrowing section of the film involves a teenager incarcerated for murder. It’s a stark contrast to the other stories in the film, which involve conditions present since birth. The similarity between all the stories lies in the parents feeling that they are to blame for the conditions their children struggle with, or in this case, what their child chose to do.

The theme that runs through all those different stories is one of difficulty, both in coping with the realities of the various disorders or disabilities and in accepting those who are different. Some of those difficulties are internal, as the parents internally struggle to accept their child who is different, the child in turn struggles with their identity or to accept their differences. Difficulty comes from external sources as well, most notably societal stigma of mental illness and other conditions portrayed in the film.

Many of the subjects of the film must battle the ever-present idea that the things that make them different from the rest of society need to be cured or fixed in some way. It is well established that stigma is a major barrier to people with mental illness and substance use disorders seeking treatment, and those profiled in the film wrestle with that reality in their stories.

In some of the happier moments of the film, families who initially struggled with acceptance due to stigma or other preconceived notions eventually come to realize that they love their child because of what makes them different. Others in the film who live with physical disabilities such as dwarfism combat stigma by choosing empowerment and living on their own terms over shame.

The way that the families in the film confront the difficulty of their family situations follow many of the same methods that have been shown to be successful in combating stigma. Educating themselves about their child’s unique situation, showing compassion for their child, and being open and honest about the reality of their family situation and what is needed to make positive progress has a profound and palpable impact on each family over the course of the film.

     

Patients and Families

 

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