1 in 5 teens either now or at some point during their life will experience a mental health illness. Yet, according to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with a mental illness don’t receive the help they need. Why is that? While there are many reasons, stigma has been identified as a major factor that keeps people from getting the help they need. 

To understand how to fight stigma, it’s important to know what mental health is and how stigma impacts people with mental illnesses. We sat down with Mady Pravecek, an Integrated Health Counselor at Sanford Health, to learn more about mental health and how we can fight the stigma.  

What is mental health, and what factors contribute to a person’s mental health?  According to Mady, “Mental health is an extremely important part of our overall well-being that impacts our emotional, mental, and social functioning. While many things contribute to how we feel, think, and behave daily, mental health can be attributed to our genetics, brain chemistry, experiences, environments, access to resources, personalities, thinking patterns, behaviors, and emotions. Healthy and happy brains are vital to feeling safe, connecting with others, and learning.”

How does mental health affect our everyday life? “Everyone is impacted daily by internal and external stressors, which can directly impact our emotional well-being. How we function and handle stressors affects how we relate to others, solve problems, and view the world.”

What is mental health stigma, and how does it affect people with mental illness? Mental health stigma is the belief that an action or condition is bad and judging yourself or others for being different. Stigma causes fear, avoidance, and discrimination against people with mental illnesses. Mady adds, “The reality is that brain health is just as important as our physical health. The brain is a complex organ that also needs to be cared for so that everything else functions properly. Our emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, and social well-being all directly impact functioning and overall health. 

What does mental health stigma sound like? Mental health stigma may come out in phrases like: 

Instead of using these phrases, try more empathetic language like:

As a caregiver or educator, what are some ways you can reduce stigma and be an advocate for teens with mental illnesses?

Talking about mental health can be challenging. What are some tips for talking with teens about their mental health? According to Mady, “When discussing mental health, especially with pre-teens and teenagers, it is important that they feel heard, seen, and loved. Teenagers are in a stage of life where they are trying to figure out who they are, what they like, and where they belong. Additionally, teenagers are at an increased risk for a lot of factors that impact mental health. Some of those risk factors include, but are not limited to, increased risk-taking behavior, sexual experimentation, drug and alcohol use, social exclusion, and discrimination. 

She also adds, “Be certain to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for them to share their perspective and thoughts. This can be challenging if they disclose thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If a teenager discusses these things with you, it is important we give our full attention, be in tune with their narrative, and know resources and professional support if you are concerned about this. Providing a ‘no blame, no shame’ approach is helpful when discussing hard emotions with teenagers. Don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions and seek to better understand how they think. Teens need to know that they have trusted, safe people in their lives to be vulnerable with. Vulnerability builds trust, and trust builds great relationships.”

Providing a safe space for your teen can be hard, especially when you are not sure what to say in the moment. Here are some conversation tips to try with your teen: 

How can someone who is struggling with their mental health deal with the stigma? If you’re the one experiencing mental health struggles, ask yourself if the perception of others is keeping you from sharing your truth or seeking help. Or if a teen in your life is struggling with the stigma of mental health, offer your encouragement and help them consider these steps:

  1. Avoid isolation – reach out to the people you trust.
  2. You are not your condition. Instead of saying “I’m bipolar,” say, “I have bipolar disorder.” 
  3. Remember that your condition is not a sign of weakness. It can be easy for stigma to create self-doubt, but it’s okay to ask for help to control your condition.
  4. Speak out. If you feel comfortable sharing, educate those around you on the reality of your condition, including how common it is.
  5. Join a support group. These often serve as a “safe space” where you can connect with and learn from others who have had similar experiences.

Remember, mental health is health. “The more we educate, advocate, and have hard conversations about what mental health is, the less the stigma will negatively impact us as individuals, families, and communities,” Mady encourages.

No matter what you or the teen in your life is experiencing, there are ways to take action to support yourself and those around you. If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide or just need support now, call or text 988 to reach a Suicide & Crisis Lifeline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week or chat at 988lifeline.org

The article series on teen mental health is made possible by First International Bank & Trust.

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Cheat Sheet for Parents and Caregivers: Stop the Mental Health Stigma
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