World Teen Mental Wellness Day - Let’s Break Down Stigmatization

Written By:

Jessica Dearing

Publishing Date: 

March 16, 2022

No matter how often mental health is being discussed today, there are still many signs that the conversation should not slow down. About 20% of youth struggle with mental illness, and many do not seek treatment or support due to stigma. Inaccurate representation through media and lack of understanding or fear from the general public contributes to this issue. Stigma and discrimination can come from others, or an internalized stigma surrounding their own condition. Self-stigma can also lead to lower self-esteem and difficulties maintaining relationships and reaching out to support systems. Reluctance to seek professional help or stay in treatment can lead to worsening symptoms. One way to fight stigma is to fight misinformation.

Some of the most common mental health disorders that affect teens include anxiety disorders, mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder), posttraumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders.

By name alone, some of these disorders can be met with stigma from others. “You don’t have depression, you aren’t sad all the time!” or “Just don’t worry or be sad so much!” are things people with anxiety and depression may unfortunately hear. This general lack of understanding from friends and family is very discouraging and may contribute to self-stigma. People who suffer from anxiety and/or depression may think their case is not bad enough to seek help or support, or they may try to hide it out of embarrassment. In actuality, depression and anxiety are some of the highest diagnosed mental disorders, with the prevalence in U.S. adults being 21 million and 48 million respectively. Someone with depression is also highly likely to have anxiety as well. Not all instances of depression or anxiety lead to sadness or panic. Cases vary heavily, so it is always beneficial to speak to a professional even if minimal signs of either disorder (or both) are present.

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that is often diagnosed in adolescence and affects about 7 million U.S. adults. Bipolar disorder can easily be confused with depression. The biggest difference is that someone with bipolar disorder also has periods of high energy and happiness, called mania. There are several types of bipolar disorder, and even those of the same type may look very different from one another. Apart from extreme high and low moods, someone living with bipolar disorder can also struggle with focusing, irritability, compulsive activities like binge shopping, or either trouble sleeping or sleeping too much. The term “bipolar” is often used inappropriately to describe someone who is “overly emotional” or “crazy”. The media representation of this disorder often plays into that stereotype as well, showing people with this condition to be dangerous. Stigma like this can easily cause fear and discrimination despite these representations being extremely inaccurate.

For posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many people are unaware that many types of traumatic events can cause it. PTSD is mostly associated with military combat, but events like natural disasters and major injuries or assault are other common causes. Public perception has also produced awful stereotypes, including labels like “crazy”, “weak”, or “dramatic” becoming associated with this disorder. Some who suffer from this disorder may not realize they suffer from it due to these factors, or realize their symptoms are more than nervousness. Some may be afraid of considering themselves to be among the stereotypes, and refuse to consider that they may be suffering from a disorder that can be managed or treated by a professional.

Eating disorders are another group of commonly diagnosed disorders among teenagers, affecting about 28.8 million people worldwide. While eating disorders are one of the most stigmatized and misunderstood mental disorders, they are also one of the deadliest. People often assume only teenaged women get eating disorders, but every age, race, size, gender, and background can be affected. Many groups including adolescents, blacks, gay men, transgender people and nonbinary people, autistic people, people with disabilities, athletes, and veterans are massively affected by eating disorders and the stigma that surrounds them. As for the “skinny teen girl” stereotype, less than 6% of people diagnosed with eating disorders are also medically underweight.

Just like disorders, specific symptoms have their own stigma. Many disorders can cause people to have trouble functioning day-to-day in different ways, many are affected by the thought that they are just “lazy”. Even people who are familiar with depression but not familiar with the struggle may not understand that poor hygiene or house maintenance, and compulsive phone use can also be a huge issue for someone with depression. This specific symptom is a major cause of self-shame and public stigma with mental illness, unfortunately amplified by the prioritization of productivity in our society. So even while the public is understanding disorders like depression a lot more recently, it is important that these symptoms are also destigmatized.

The good news is that the vast majority of mental illness cases are treatable, either with medicine or therapy. There are many types of clinical help and assistance, each can depend on the symptoms one is experiencing. It is important to know that anyone who is experiencing symptoms that are affecting them negatively, it is worthy of speaking about to a professional. Mental illness is very complex, cases of the same disorder can look vastly different from one another. This is why it is best to sort out symptoms with a qualified professional, so the best treatment can be found. Along with knowledge and education, compassion regarding mental health can go a very long way in the battle against stigma. Discussing mental illness like it is a physical illness should be the norm, as well as seeking treatment. There should be no shame or blame.

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