The Impact of the Mental Health Stigma on Youth

Mental illnesses are common in the United States. As of 2016, nearly 44.7 million adults and one in five U.S youth live with a mental illness.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of stigma related to mental illness in American society and other cultures. According to the Mayo Clinic,  the term ‘mental illness’ is often seen as different from physical illness.

To some, the word ‘mental’ means the problems are caused by personal choices and actions, not true illness.  Others may think the condition is all in someone’s head. They may consider people with mental health disorders/illness to be weak and lazy. They should just “get over it.”

When in fact a mental health disorder is a condition that disrupts a person’s mood, thought or behavior, often for a long period of time.

Any mental illness (AMI) is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. AMI can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.

Some believe that people with mental health disorders/illness are dangerous and violent. This stigma is often reinforced by the media and  crime reports where someone is vaguely referred to as ‘mentally ill.’

However, the statistics do not demonstrate a connection between mental illnesses and violence.

Prevalence of Any Mental Illness in Adults?

  • In 2016, there were an estimated 44.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with AMI. This number represented 18.3% of all U.S. adults.
  • The prevalence of AMI was higher among women (21.7%) than men (14.5%).
  • Young adults aged 18-25 years had the highest prevalence of AMI (22.1%) compared to adults aged 26-49 years (21.1%) and aged 50 and older (14.5%).
  • The prevalence of AMI was highest among the adults reporting two or more races (26.5%), followed by the American Indian/Alaska Native group (22.8%).
  • The prevalence of AMI was lowest among the Asian group (12.1%).
  • Source: Statistics retrieved from the National Institute for Mental Health at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml 

Graph 1 directly above shows the past year prevalence of AMI among U.S. adults.

What mental health disorders are common in our schools today?

Anxiety and Mood Disorders are most common and can affect nearly 5 million youth today.

As a result, when a youth is struggling with their mental health, it is significantly harder to learn.

Teachers, counselors, school medical teams and parents can benefit from being aware of signs and symptoms and how they may impact a youth’s attendance, learning, motivation, and performance in the classroom.

Prevalence of Any Mental Illness Among Adolescents

Based on diagnostic interview data from National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), The graph below shows lifetime prevalence of any mental disorder among U.S. adolescents aged 13-18.

  • An estimated 49.5% of adolescents had any mental disorder.
  • Of adolescents with any mental disorder, an estimated 22.2% had severe impairment. DSM-IV criteria were used to determine impairment.
  • Source: NIMH NCS-A study page.

Graph 2 directly above shows the lifetime prevalence of AMI among U.S. adults from 2001 – 2004.

What are the consequences of mental illness stigma for youth?

As a result, according to David Anderson, an expert on schools and mental health at the Child Mind Institute, “Kids who suffer from mental health disorders … inevitably miss out on opportunities for learning and building relationships.” The lack of opportunity and relationship building may lead to stigma being placed on them.

Stigma often causes people with diagnosed mental illness to feel ashamed or rejected. Consequently, they may:

  • Try to pretend nothing is wrong to friends and family
  • Refuse to seek help or treatment
  • Be isolated from family or friends
  • Experience work or school problems or discrimination
  • Have difficulty finding housing or adequate health coverage Be victims of physical violence or harassment

Ways to fight Mental Health Stigma

Today, the stigma surrounding some mental health disorders is slowly disappearing. There is greater understanding of mental illnesses and the biological basis of most mental health disorders. As causes of mental illnesses and better treatments for them are discovered, stigma may fade even more.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness here are some ways to combat the stigma of mental health:

In the end, a person with mental illness decides who to tell and how much to tell. Often, after confiding in people they trust, they will find much-needed compassion, support and acceptance.

For more information, check out the National Institute of Mental Health @ https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml

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