Encouraging Tolerance of Teen Mental Illness

stressed adolescentMental illness is a difficult disease to manage for many reasons, and it can feel incredibly isolating. In recent years, there has been a movement to encourage tolerance of mental illness, including many celebrities talking about family members with disorders. In some ways, it has helped. For example, a decade ago, the majority of people thought depression stemmed from a bad attitude or negative choices. Now, two-thirds of Americans recognize that depression is rooted in an individual’s biology. Despite that improvement in understanding, there was little change in the social stigma of mental illness. For example, the majority of people said they wouldn’t want a person with depression to marry into their family. People with mental illness often face rejection in friendships, jobs, and even family.

If adults with mental illness face this type of rejection, imagine what teenagers must go through. Adolescents already live in a hotbed of rejection, taunts, and bullying. Add mental illness to the mix, and school can become a truly hostile environment. In an interview, teens with mental illness admitted to hearing cruel comments from others, such as:

The guys at school would say, ‘Why don’t you just kill yourself? You’d be better off dead.’

My mom and dad keep telling me I’m pathetic and they don’t think I’m ‘trying hard enough.’

When my parents found out I was cutting myself on purpose, I spent several weeks in residential treatment. When I returned to school, I had no friends. Girls in the hallways would say, ‘Why did you come back anyway? Nobody likes you.’

Research shows that teens with mental health problems commonly experience social rejection at school. In one study, nearly two-thirds of teens coping with mental illness reported stigma from their peers. In another study, only half of the middle school students surveyed said they would be willing to sit next to a classmate with mental illness. Adolescence, which is characterized with a great need to fit in and be accepted by peers, is a uniquely painful time to feel different and confront mental health challenges.

The key to reducing stigma among teens lies with education. Studies show that when teens are given facts that counter their stereotypes and demonstrate that mental health issues are not uncommon, teens are more open to change and acceptance.

Recent studies show that teachers who incorporate discussions about mental illness into their classes, give students permission to express their own struggles, if they want. As soon as teens begin to share, it lifts the fear and the “I am alone” shame. Clearly, a student needs to feel comfortable enough to share their story, but those that do seem to open a floodgate of “I thought I was the only one!” discussions.

The credibility of older students can also be very effective at fighting stigma. Researchers discovered that if a senior was willing to go talk to a ninth-grade health class about his/her experience with depression, the younger students were much more open, accepting, and supportive to others with a mental illness.

Teachers are also able to transform the way teens with a mental illness perceive themselves. One young adult interviewed described how a high school teacher talked to her about her strength of compassion. The teacher asked the girl to consider using that strength by tutoring some of her younger students that were struggling in class. It gave her confidence.

Overcoming the shame of mental illness is the key to a more tolerant environment in school. Parents can tell their child all they want that they are not alone and that others are facing the same problems, but the teen can’t see it. When students share their struggles, teens can finally see for themselves that they are not alone.

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