Mental health stigma: changing minds and outcomes
Last month’s tragedy in Connecticut thrust our country into a painful moment of collective reflection. The debate on how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again touches upon many subjects: gun control, school security measures, and the possible effects of video game violence on young brains, among them.
And then there is the question of the mental illness. Consider a simple fact: Mental, emotional, or behavioral health problems affect one in five children and adolescents. Put another way: a child is as likely to suffer one of these disorders as s/he is to break a bone. Mental health affects everyone regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.
Consider another fact: Mental illness is preventable. Unfortunately, many people who suffer mental illness do not seek the treatment they need because of real or perceived barriers. Among these are:
- Attitude: Believing that mental illness will resolve on its own or believing that psychiatric care would not be beneficial
- Financial concerns: Lack of health insurance coverage, or coverage that leaves a large amount owed by the patient.
- Poor self-perception: Unlike with physical illnesses, people suffering from a mental illness often do not realize that they are ill.
- Poor access: Some Americans have poor access to mental health care services because they live in a rural environment. Others lack transportation options or are overwhelmed by work and home responsibilities.
- Stigma: Many patients believe a stigma exists regarding the mentally ill. They feel that negative stereotypes could damage their careers or relationships. Embarrassed and fearful of what others may think, they do not seek the services they need.
Getting help at the earliest possible time is key to feeling better and possibly to preventing mental illness altogether. Early identification and intervention improve outcomes for children, before these conditions become far more serious, more costly and difficult to treat. Some facts on children and mental illness from Mental Health America reveal the scope of the problem:
- 13% of youth aged 8-15 live with mental illness severe enough to cause significant impairment in their day-to-day lives. This figure jumps to 21 percent in youth aged 13-18.
- Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.
- Despite the availability of effective treatment, there are average delays of 8 to 10 years between the onset of symptoms and intervention—critical developmental years in the life of a child. In our nation, only about 20% of youth with mental illness receive treatment.
- Unidentified and untreated mental illness is associated with serious consequences for children, families and communities:
- Approximately 50% of students aged 14 and older with mental illness drop out of high school—the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
- 90% of those who die by suicide have a mental illness. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth aged 15-24; more youth and young adults die from suicide than from all natural causes combined.
- 70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have mental illness, with at least 20% experiencing severe symptoms. At the same time, juvenile facilities fail to adequately address the mental health needs of youth in their custody.
(For more information, see Children's mental health fact sheet: Mental Health America.)
We know HOW to prevent many forms of mental illness through appropriate, timely interventions. If we are to capitalize on our proven ability to shape healthier lives, however, we must rethink our negative attitudes. The answer to our mental health crisis lies in education and the correction of common misperceptions. Shine a light on the problem and the barriers facing those in need of help will begin to fall.