Fighting Mental Illness Stigma in Children and Teens

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, mental illness is defined as “health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” Because mental illness is a long-term condition, these difficulties can persist year after year. When a young person with mental illness feels stigmatized, the ongoing feelings of shame and guilt can be devastating. Recent statistics say that one of every five school-age children in Canada lives with some degree of mental illness. These illnesses include things like learning disabilities, behavior issues, autism and depression. Yet, even though 20 percent of young people struggle with mental health issues, just one in six will seek help. Most experts believe that is largely due to the stigma associated with mental illness. When a child or teen is dealing with mental illness, they can usually feel the difference between themselves and their healthy peers, and the other kids can, too. When peers pick up on the struggle, they generally shun or behave hurtfully toward the one who is different. This only drives children with mental illness further into self-imposed isolation and makes it less likely that they will be willing to talk with someone about their problems. Stigma is a powerful obstacle to successfully treating mental illness. Another reason that mental illness in teens often goes untreated is parental attitudes. Parents may decide that a daughter who cuts is just trying the latest fad rather than expressing deep anguish. Negative, low-energy teens are not suspected of anything more than being a ‘normal’ adolescent. Boys are excused for angry outbursts because anger is considered acceptable in males. Rather than seeing these behaviors as symptoms needing treatment, parents and society accommodate and essentially ignore them. The negative terms used to refer to mental illness (e.g. disturbed, nuts, psycho) are another reason that mental health and mental health treatment is stigmatized. Members of the media often perpetuate these negative stereotypes and thoughtless remarks. Until the way we talk about mental illness changes, it will be difficult to convince teens and parents that diagnosis and care are worth the social risks. This is tragic since we would never think of talking about cancer patients, for example, in this way. The World Health Organization reports that one quarter of the world’s population will experience a behavioral or mental disorder at least once during their lifetime. In the U.S., experts expect to find emotional and social impairment in 14 percent of children and youth. The problem is real enough – young people are struggling and too many of them are afraid to come forward and seek help. One plan for addressing the problem of mental health stigma is to create greater mental health awareness in schools. Teaching children about the importance of positive mental health and the reality of mental illness early on could help change prevailing attitudes. School-based interventions are a relatively new concept with plans in the works to study their efficacy. Optimism is high that this approach could turn the corner on how we think and talk about mental and behavioral health issues. If we can help the next generation grasp the idea that we are physical as well as spiritual beings, and that a person can become ill in either of those parts through no fault of their own, we may begin to see improvements in outcomes for those suffering with mental illnesses.

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