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Erasing the Mental Health Stigma for Teens

As we are approaching the one year mark of the complete shutdown of our society due to COVID-19, we want to take a more in depth look at the ramifications this pandemic has had on our youth in relation to their mental health and their participation or lack there of mental health services. There has always existed a certain amount of stigma around the notion of mental health illnesses and substance abuse disorders. This stigma can be traced all the way back from ancient Greek society with the inhuman treatment of those suffering from mental health issues. It was believed that mental health was related to demonic possession.

In May of 2020, the National 4‑H Council commissioned a survey with The Harris Poll to explore teens’ perceptions and experiences around mental health. They surveyed over 1500 youths, ages 13-19 of varying demographics and cultural make up, to get their take on how COVID-19 has impacted their mental health. These are some of the key findings:

  • 81% of teens say mental health is a significant issue for young people in the U.S. and 64% of teens believe that the experience of COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on their generation’s mental health.

  • In this stressful climate, 7 in 10 teens have experienced struggles with mental health.

  • 55% of teens say they’ve experienced anxiety, 45% excessive stress, and 43% depression.

This pandemic has shown the cracks in our mental health policies. It also has shown the lack of understanding we as a society have in regards to mental health disorders and the resources available to help people through these difficult times. Our youth have many unique stressors that have led to higher rates of anxiety and depression. The uncertainty around their futures in relation to their social life and academic goals have really placed many youth in a perpetual state of anxiety. As a mental health provider, I would say the number one reason parents are calling to place their teen in therapy is due to anxiety related challenges.

Ninety-nine percent of the parents I have worked with since this pandemic started report that their teen had requested therapy, Anxiety and depression are the major factors for seeking out help. Our seniors in high school are also experiencing stressors in relation to missing out on major milestones such as prom, graduation, senior trips, and other senior year celebrations. Coupled with uncertainty around their college being on line or in person and if they will get to move away from home, itʻs no wonder our youth are vocalizing their need for added support.

We can start tackling the stigma surrounding mental health through conversations with our youth and supporting their requests when they want to participate in therapy. Check up on your teens. If you notice changes in them, share with them your concern and how you can go about supporting them. Validate their fears and concerns and let them know that you are available to hear them out and point them in the right direction. Itʻs important that you understand that mental health professionals are there to support your youth and as their adults we can always be there to listen but we need to know when we are out of our element and leave the work to the professionals. Having a child in therapy is not a direct reflection of parenting skills. It is not about us but rather about their need for added support.

Mental health stigma varies from culture to culture and there does exist historical trauma for many indigenous peoples in relation to mental health support. If you are weary of participating, I encourage you to look within your circle of trust and reach out to a trusted elder for support or for a referral to someone they would recommend. Representation is important and itʻs okay to look for mental health providers that are from the same background as your teen if that will help ease their discomfort. At the end of the day, the main objective is to seek out professional help and to find a therapist that is a great fit for your youth or even for yourself.

There is some good news in terms of how our youth perceive the need to seek out mental health services and itʻs importance. According to an Newport Academy article, Mental Health Stigma and the Impact of the Pandemic, our youth are heading up the movement to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health challenges. They also have a keen understanding of many of the mental health challenges they are facing as a result of social distancing and the uncertainty of their future in relation to the pandemic.

We all need to work collectively to combat the stigma around mental health illnesses. It takes a lot of courage to step out of our comfort zone and seek help. We need to honor our teens when they request help. The investment into their mental health will have lasting benefits as they grow into self-aware and balanced adults.

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