Stigma serves as one of the main reasons people delay seeking mental health care. It consists of misconceptions that label people with mental illnesses as lazy or crazy and causes them to feel rejected from society, even though they are far from alone in their struggles. Not only is stigma hurtful, it’s deadly. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, and lack of treatment is a major risk factor.
Stigma can manifest itself in various ways, from institutional stigma to self-stigma. Institutional stigma is characterized by its impact on healthcare, such as insurance providers covering mental health care to a lesser degree than physical care. With self-stigma, a person may suffer from a lack of motivation to receive care in order to avoid being seen differently by their peers. Often, stigma from others has the most drastic impact, as it sparks self-stigma and can act as an immense barrier in pediatric mental health care access.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that approximately 31.9% of children had a diagnosable anxiety disorder, and 14.3% were found to have a mood disorder. The median age of onset was thirteen for mood disorders and only six for anxiety disorders.
The likelihood of common mental health disorders first emerging in childhood highlights the need for early interventions and conversations about mental health. Therefore, it is critical that parents recognize mental health crises in their children and respond appropriately with adequate care. Stigma is a threat to treatment accessibility and, with untreated depression being a major risk factor for suicide, can consequently result in an exacerbation of symptoms or the taking of one’s own life.
According to research in the American Journal of Managed Care, parents might refuse or not actively seek mental health care for their children due to perceived stigma. Some parents may worry that they will be blamed for their child’s state of mental illness and believe that admitting that their child needs help would suggest inadequacy. However, mental illness can impact anyone and is affected by a multitude of environmental and biological factors. It is not always indicative of parental wrongdoing, and should not reflect poorly on a family.
Negative effects of stigma in families isn’t limited to a parent’s lack of action, it can also worsen mental health symptoms by causing the person affected to internalize negative stereotypes. This may cause the individual to deny or hide their pain and wrongfully blame themselves for their hardships. Even when a person has the resources to seek mental health care without the help of a parent, fear of judgement from loved ones may cause them to avoid getting treatment. It is important to look beyond skewed perceptions of mental health, and provide support and acceptance for your loved ones when they’re struggling.
Language plays a role in stigma as well, as people will often use derogatory words to describe people with mental illnesses, such as “crazy” or “psycho”. The lack of person-first language and misuse of terms can reduce people to just their conditions. Mental illnesses are not adjectives. Out of respect for the individual as a human being, it’s important to use language like “He has bipolar disorder,” rather than “He’s bipolar,” and “I’m really organized, I color coded my binders last night,” rather than “Ugh, I’m so OCD! I love staying organized”. These disorders consist of multiple complex symptoms and can have serious impacts on people’s lives. They shouldn’t be used inappropriately when other words are better suited to describe one’s feelings or actions.
Fighting stigma requires educating people on mental health and debunking the myths associated with mental illness. Talking about mental health should not elicit judgement or shame, nor should it be silenced. One in five people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, and it’s important not only to talk about it, but to remind others that they are not alone and deserve to be heard and receive care. We all have mental health and should encourage open conversations on our mental wellness just as we would our physical.
Educating people on the signs and symptoms of mental illness helps to fight stereotypes around it and encourages people to check in on their friends. Recognizing signs and symptoms also helps people realize when they’re struggling. Being able to identify symptoms as a legitimate mental health problem can make explaining feelings to others easier and therefore assist an individual in seeking treatment. Understanding how mental health issues present themselves promotes the deconstruction of previously held stereotypes and can effectively lessen stigma.
To those coping with a mental health condition, remember that your mental illness is not a sign of weakness and is nothing to be ashamed of. Do not allow stigma to silence you or isolate you from friends and family. You are far from alone in your struggles, and much stronger than the stigma you may face.