The World Health Organization estimates that around 10–20% of adolescents around the world experience mental illnesses, yet these remain underdiagnosed and undertreated. In the United States, North Carolina has the most number of untreated cases of depression among adolescents (74.3%) while Rhode Island has the least (39.5%). There are many factors that contribute to the gap in mental healthcare, but stigma has been identified as a major one.
What is mental health stigma?
The New Freedom Commission on Mental Health describes mental health stigma as “a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.” This type of stigma has been around even as early as the Greek Dark Ages and the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe. Back then, people believed that demonic possession caused mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, mental health stigma persists today. A CBS News poll reveals that 51% of Americans think that people with mental illnesses experience “a lot” of stigmas and discrimination. Such disorders are even considered taboo in some cultures like Asian and African American communities where mental health disorder is considered as weakness or failure.
How are teens affected by mental health stigma?
The stigma around mental health conditions can endanger adolescents in many ways.
- Being victims of bullying
The negative beliefs and stereotypes about mental illnesses have been used to justify bullying teens with such conditions. Bullying can take on many different forms, such as:
- Physical bullying – using physical force against someone
- Verbal bullying – using words to attack another person
- Social/Relational bullying – purposely excluding, spreading rumors, or ignoring someone
- Cyberbullying – using electronic media to intimidate, threaten, or embarrass another person
- Experiencing discrimination
Mental health stigma can lead to discrimination, whereby adolescents with mental health issues are treated differently or poorly because of their condition. These adolescents then often have fewer opportunities for education, employment, and social activities.
- Having limited access to quality healthcare
Mental health stigma can translate to the neglect or unwillingness of the political system to allocate public funds toward mental health services. Some insurance companies also do not cover psychiatric therapy and medication. This is why teens with mental illnesses may receive poorer quality of care or have difficulty even receiving any form of care. In fact, 31% of American adolescents have tried to avail mental healthcare but found it too hard to figure out where to go.
- Having decreased self-esteem and resorting to self-isolation
The stigmatization from their family, peers, and community can negatively impact how adolescents view themselves and how they interact with others. A 2010 study of stigma among teens taking psychiatric medication found that many of the participants are afraid of being bullied by their peers in school. Consequently, 90% of them displayed at least one of the three measured stigma themes: secrecy, shame, and limiting social interaction.
- Being unwilling to seek treatment or feeling shame for doing so
Mental health stigma prevents adolescents from getting the help they need. And when they do seek treatment, they feel shame for doing so. In fact, 49% of Americans from Generation Z worry about others judging them when they say they’ve sought mental health services.
- Having poor overall health condition
When adolescents with mental illnesses don’t get help, they tend to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes, which can lead to substance abuse. Some also develop behaviors that adversely affect their health like eating disorders or social media addiction to cope with negative stigma. In fact, nearly one in two Americans from Generation Z experienced the adverse effects of poor mental health on their physical health.
How can parents fight mental health stigma?
Action must be taken at all levels of society to reduce and eventually eliminate mental health stigma. But as a parent of a teen with a mental health condition, you can do a lot to effect change.
- Be conscious of the language you use
Be careful of how you refer to people with mental health conditions by avoiding labels. For example, instead of saying “She’s schizophrenic,” say “She has schizophrenia.” Also avoid using mental illnesses as adjectives such as “The weather today is so bipolar.”
- Raise mental health awareness in your community
One of the best ways to normalize mental illness is to talk about it. You can bust mental health myths and educate members of your community by speaking at events, contributing to your local newsletter, or sharing helpful infographics on your neighborhood’s social media group.
- Encourage your child to seek treatment
Instead of avoiding the issue or forcing your child to seek treatment right away, have an open discussion about mental illness and assure them of your love and support. When you feel they are ready, share with them how adolescent mental health services can provide relief and reduce symptoms that interfere with their school and personal life.
If you are looking for competent, comprehensive, and compassionate care for your child, then set up an appointment with Meridian Psychiatric Partners. When you work with us, we’ll make sure that your child gets the appropriate support and treatment to ensure their continued growth and development.
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