Mental Health Stigma is Still Very Real – Even Among Our Young. A True Story from Western PA…

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August 11, 2017 We still have a long way to go to break the stigma about seeking help for mental health if you are struggling. After all, if raising your hand about having a mental health issue means you feel characterized in negative terms, you may opt to keep your hand down and not seek treatment. It may be easy and pleasant for us to think that the stigma is lessening and changing; we share posts on Facebook and other social media sites to show how “accepting” we are about the issue of mental health. But the truth is that the negative stereotypes of mental illness are not fading as rapidly and extensively as we would all like to believe. Our data shows that only 1 in 5 with a treatable condition will seek help.

I saw this stigma up close this week when presenting our “More Than Sad: Teen Depression” program to a class of 8th graders at a school in our Western PA 20-county region. The discussion was going great — we were talking about the signs and symptoms that were evident in 4 different portrayed stories and the class was very engaged. Until I asked the question: “Give me an example of an adult you would talk to if you were struggling.”

Crickets.

I continued to try to prompt an answer. Nothing. So I asked, “Okay, then can you tell me why you might not tell a parent if you needed help with depression?”

The students exchanged some looks, and finally, one male student sheepishly raised his hand and offered this in response: “Because your parents want you to do well, so I’d be ashamed to tell them.”

Wham! There it was. I asked the class if they agreed, and there was a lot of affirmative nodding. The stigma, in harsh relief among a class of 8th graders. Not only did they in general view mental health in a negative light, but on the whole they seemed to think their parents did too. I continued, “Would you be ashamed to tell them if you were having stomach pains every day for weeks on end?”

The class shook their heads no. “So why would you be ashamed to tell them if you were feeling not well from depression or anxiety?” They pondered this but were still silent. When we talked about peer support, they also said they would not tell someone if they were worried about a friend. So then we talked about how “tattle-telling” was not the same as getting help for someone you care about.

I wrapped up the session by giving them examples of specific things they could say to ask for help and examples of adults they could talk to.

As that real-world example illustrates, we still have a lot of work today as a society to get everyone to see that “mental health” is “health” so that people can live more comfortable, happier lives and ultimately so that we can change the course of the rising suicide rate in the U.S. It starts by removing the stigma, even among our youngest family and community members.

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