According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading barrier that prevents individuals suffering from a mental illness to seek treatment is stigmatization. Admitting to having a mental illness can generate many negative feelings for an adult, such as a sense of failure, shame, guilt, or weakness. Feeling judged or ostracized makes two out of every three individuals who are diagnosed with a mental disorder refuse to seek treatment, and more still remain undiagnosed. Even with treatment, many feel outcast by their disease, and potentially experience further complications to their mental health, such as depression or anxiety disorders. For adolescents, this challenge can be especially difficult during their developing years when they are still shaping their identities. A new study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that 90 percent of adolescents with a mental illness are likely to cope with a stigma regarding their disorder.
The study was conducted by researchers at the Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences who investigated the effects of stigmas on young adults. The stigmas felt by adults dealing with a mental disorder has been well-documented, but the CWRU study represents one of the first of its kind to consider the same impact on adolescents. The high percentage of adolescents who cope with a stigma reported feeling shame, isolation, a need to withdraw socially, or a need to conceal. These feelings are caused both by self- and public-stigmatizations. Negative stereotypes and discrimination about their mental illness become internalized in the adolescent, causing repercussions in their development and their later functionality as an adult. The group researched for the study included 40 adolescents ages 12–17, 60 percent female and 40 percent male, who were each taking an average of two psychotropic medications. Most commonly, these adolescents suffered from either depression or bipolar disorder, and more than half were experiencing comorbid mental disorders.
The study also noted that the attitudes of both parents and schools particularly affected the way adolescents coped with their mental illness. In most cases, parents and schools either helped safeguard the adolescent from shame or embarrassment, or helped intensify the adolescent’s feelings of isolation. Parents who accepted their children for who they are and loved them in spite of the mental illness were able to help their children rise above their stigmas. These parents generated positive consequences in the development of their children and helped pave the way for them to lead normal, healthy lives. On the other hand, if children were given affected treatment from parents because of their illness, negative consequences were more likely to result, such as their parents’ feelings contributing to the stress and enabling the stigma. School environments can produce an even more drastic effect on these adolescents who are feeling segregated by their peers and teachers alike. This stigmatization may result in the adolescent’s withdrawal from class participation, academic failure, drop out, and even suicide.
If mental illnesses remain untreated, severe consequences can result. Behavioral and mental disorders are often called ‘family diseases’ since the negative effects are felt by all family members if just one member of the household suffers a disorder. The shared consequences of a mental illness send a ripple effect upon the family—especially on children—who then often suffer from their own depression or anxiety disorders. Untreated mental illnesses cost the economy millions of dollars each year due to lost productivity. Adolescents struggling with their parents’ or their own disorders can face developmental problems, academic failure, delinquency, lack of social skills, or substance abuse. And, most significantly, untreated mental illnesses quite often result in suicide. Tragic stories like those of 11-year-old Carl J. Walker-Hoover and 15-year-old Phoebe Prince stand out as such shocking stories of suicide because the causes of their anxiety or depression were theoretically preventable or treatable. Their stories serve as reminders of the stigmas that surround mental health and how the public at large remains unaware of the impacts of untreated mental illnesses and public safety. Suicide has consecutively remained one of the top ten leading causes of death in the U.S. In 2006, the CDC ranked suicide as the seventh leading cause of death with 33,300 deaths, representing more deaths than homicide and AIDS-related deaths combined. In 2007, suicide was the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, accounting for 12% of all deaths in that age group. In 2002, suicide was the leading cause of intentional violent death worldwide, exceeding war and homicide. On September 11, 2001, 3,000 Americans died due to terrorist attacks, but over 40,000 Americans died by suicide that same year.
The goal of the CWRU study was to raise public awareness of a growing problem facing adults and adolescents as well. Social misconceptions about mental illnesses contribute to the defeat of public safety and health. The high percentage reported in this study can help school officials, educators, and social workers form more effective methods of intervention and prevention to avoid the stigmas surrounding mental health that currently exist in adolescent environments.