Destigmatizing Mental Health Services For Youth
Studies have shown that children in the United States have many mental health needs that remain unidentified. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that about 20% of the nation’s youth have or will have an emotional, mental, or behavioral disorder. Only about 7.4% of these children report having received any type of mental health services, however.
A 2014 National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) study by Jane Burns and Emma Birrell noted that many mental health problems escalate in adolescence and young adulthood. The effects of these under treated childhood mental health issues can be higher rates of substance abuse, anxiety, and depression, as well as suicidal ideation and self harm.
There is a stigma surrounding mental illness and its treatment. This disapproval is a barrier that keeps young people from seeking assistance. The consequence is that they are not receiving appropriate care, which translates to an increased chance of dropping out of school, employment or relationship problems, future incarceration, or even suicide.
Impact of Childhood Mental Disorders
The most prevalent mental disorder in children is attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Other common conditions are:
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Substance abuse
- Learning disorders
- Eating disorders
A 2013 study by Khong, et. al. stated that “The highest-ranking top 25 causes of disability include anxiety disorders, drug and alcohol problems, schizophrenia, and bipolar effect disorders. By age 5, mental health and behavioral problems become an important and soon dominant cause of years lost to disability, peaking between ages 20–29.”
There is often a gap of up to 15 years between the onset of symptoms and the person getting the appropriate care. Because behavioral and mental health concerns are not being addressed early enough, they become issues down the road – major depression is one of the top four causes of disability in adulthood.
As the study noted, mental health conditions can begin to emerge as early as 5 or 6 years old. Symptoms of anxiety disorders often include:
- trouble sleeping
- trouble concentrating
- numerous, lingering, or intense periods of stress, anxiety, or fear that seem out of proportion to the triggering event and which affects the child’s daily life
Ways to Destigmatize Mental Health Services
Children with mental health challenges are often marginalized or bullied by their peers. This social exclusion keeps them suffering in silence, discouraging the majority of adolescents and teens from seeking help.
To destigmatize mental health in general, we need to:
- Equate mental illness with physical illness. Mental illness is a disease, just the same as physical illnesses like diabetes or cancer, but mental health conditions are often thought of as something the person could overcome if they just “tried harder.” They are disorders of brain function, however, which means they are based in the physical body in much the same way as something like a heart condition or high blood pressure. We certainly wouldn’t expect a heart patient to just “try harder” to get their blood pressure or irregular heartbeat under control.
- Show compassion to those with mental illness and don’t treat them differently. People with mental health conditions live meaningful lives, but they often have to fight to keep from being judged.
- Watch what you say. Don’t use words like “freak” or “crazy” because this type of language continues the negativity against mental illness.
- Change the culture by taking a good look at children who are acting out. Try to figure out why they are behaving in certain ways, instead of writing them off as bad kids.
- Don’t judge yourself if you are struggling with mental health issues. Your condition is out of your control. Being ashamed only adds to the burden and can keep you from seeking help.
- Encourage family members or friends to seek help if they are facing mental health challenges.
- Familiarize your child with mental health concerns like anxiety and depression from a young age. For example, help them understand that everyone has days when they are sad or angry or feel stressed, but if they can’t shake those feelings, it is okay to ask for help.
People who are challenged with mental health issues often feel alone. The reality is that the majority of us have some type of mental health condition. Great examples include the new mother with postpartum depression, the college student with ADHD, and the coworker who has post-traumatic stress disorder from their military service.
By destigmatizing mental health problems and services from a young age, we can teach children to challenge negative attitudes so they are more comfortable asking for help.
Monshat K, Khong B, Hassed C, et al. “A conscious control over life and my emotions:” mindfulness practice and healthy young people. A qualitative study. J Adolesc Health. 2013;52(5):572–577.