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The Social Stigma Preventing Students from Healthy Habits

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As we continue these conversations about mental health today, we need to also remember the original views that our ancestors had about these abnormalities. The stigmatization of mental health issues is deeply rooted in our world and a culture that treats individuals that struggle from these problems as well as people who don’t has yet to be discovered. Even from Neolithic times, a method termed “trephining” was developed to chip a hole in someone’s skull in order to release the spirit (Caddell). Even further, mental illness was considered a punishment from God during the Middle Ages and people were chained to walls or beds or even burned at the stake since they were believed to be possessed by the devil (Rössler). Throughout our history, victims of mental illness were treated as criminals and were held accountable for the diseases that they could not control. In turn, they faced imprisonment, torture, and death with no real efforts to treat the underlying causes of their suffering. Victims of mental health disorders were outcasted and dehumanized, leading to the brutal deaths of hundreds of thousands during the Holocaust (Rössler). The discrimination that people with mental illness have had to face throughout humanity is heartbreaking and, though the punishment is not as severe as these examples, they still have to face daily oppression across the globe. In the Ted talk by University of Southern California Gould Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry Elyn Saks, she described her traumatic experiences in mental hospitals where she reported being bolted to a table during schizophrenic episodes (Saks). Though she did require professional attention due to her symptoms, she had felt unsafe and criminalized. Her final message to the audience was that the “humanity we share is more important than the mental illness we may not” (Saks). 

“The humanity we share is more important than the mental illness we may not.”

Elyn Saks, Ted Talk

Today, a social stigma exists around mental illness formed by these centuries of oppression. Even though one in four Americans will be affected by a mental health disorder sometime in their life, there are still heavy barriers between victims and the mentally healthy. Approximately ¾ of the American population has a negative attitude towards individuals with drug dependency and ⅔ toward schizophrenia and alcohol dependency (Rössler). These stereotypes and biases are reinforced by the portrayal of mental health in popular culture; “media coverage of mental illnesses has been consistently and overwhelmingly negative and imprecise” (Rössler).

Though we may not all share these extreme experiences with schizophrenia, one in four Americans are affected by a mental health disorder sometime in their life.

However, due to the social stigma formed by these centuries of oppression, we do not adequately prepare younger generations to handle these issues when they are met with them. When children are growing up and learning, taking in the information fed to them through the media and the messages around them, these prototypes become defining images in their minds. The stigma and disapproval of “abnormality” in the brain becomes part of an ideology that supports and encourages only individuals that don’t face these struggles. This belief becomes problematic because it cautions individuals against others that struggle with mental health, therefore deterring victims from facing their own abnormalities and seeking the help that they need. Internalized stigma can be even more harmful to individuals than social stigma, possibly leading to worsened symptoms. This process begins even before the individual is affected by a mental illness and it instills “culturally disseminated stereotypes about such illlnesses” (Rössler). It is important that we start to dissolve these messages and instead portray mental illness with more empathy and less judgement. Otherwise, we continue to feed into a vicious cycle where people feel unsafe and even hated by their own coworkers, friends, and family.

 

Children and teenagers are especially affected by the way that we talk about and treat mental health because they are experiencing new things all the time and trying to navigate their own experiences and their emotional and mental responses to them. Technology and social media are proving to be having monumental effects on the developing mind, showing that young adults that visit social media platforms at least 58 times a week were three times more likely to feel socially isolated in comparison to those who visited less than 9 times a week (Mir). Consistent use of Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter has been proven to lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image, and loneliness (Ehmke). Teenagers are constantly concerned with follower counts, the posts of their favorite celebrities, messages from friends they don’t talk to in person, and the negative outcomes such as lack of sleep, cyberbullying, and lack of physical activity have taken a severe toll on young Americans. Kathy Reamy, a school counselor at La Plata High School in Maryland says, “There’s just so much going on in this day and age, the pressures to fit in, the pressure to achieve, the pressure of social media. And then you couple that with the fact that kids can’t even feel safe in their schools – they worry genuinely about getting shot – and it all makes it so much harder to be a teenager” (Flannery).

The emotional regulation methods of these teens are underdeveloped and poorly, if ever, addressed in their homes or school community. Instead, they might resort to other coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or self-harm. According to one study, frequent users are more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression, been treated by a mental health professional, or taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue (Newport Academy). In fact, the suicide rate for younger generations have risen by 56% since 2007 and is now the second leading cause of death among teenagers (Serrano). A devastating 3,000 high school students across the U.S. attempt suicide every day (Ibid). According to the National College Health Assessment, a quarter of students said that they suffer from anxiety symptoms like “persistent feelings of dread and jumpiness, frequent panic attacks, as well as headaches, stomach problems, shortness of breath, and fatigue” (Ibid). These numbers are reaching records in studies being conducted around the country, revealing that at least 10 million students between the ages of 13 to 18 have a mental health condition requiring professional help (Ibid). The most common diagnoses in adolescents are depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADHD (Ibid). Though individuals that suffer from these more common disorders don’t face the same kind of limitations that Elyn Saks and others with severe mental illnesses, there is still a social barrier keeping them from receiving the help they need.

  • Hawken is a private, co-education school located in Gates Mills, Ohio.
  • A competitive school with an 8:1 student-faculty ratio, Hawken has earned a national reputation for “educational excellence and innovative programming.”
  • 1,301 students attend Hawken Upper School and there are 2 psychologists on campus.
  • More info

One student, a senior at Hawken Upper School, described her struggle with social anxiety and depression as completely separate from her high school career. This student suffers from semi-frequent panic attacks and said that on more than one occasion, she has hidden in the individual restroom because of how stressful the environment was. On one account, she even left school to go home where her mother, who she described as being her most trusted adult, was able to help her calm down. “It feels stupid,” she said in response to why she didn’t feel comfortable around members of the Hawken community during these overwhelming experiences. “I don’t want anyone to see me. I feel embarrassed.” This senior has spent many years in therapy, starting the summer between fifth and sixth grade. Though she has dealt with these mental health issues for much of her childhood and teenage years, she still wishes she “had more techniques” to be able to help her maintain healthy habits. As this student is getting ready to leave home for the first time for college, she is worried about leaving home, especially because she does not feel as safe and secure without her mother nearby.

Students of all ages experience these overwhelming feelings of stress but not enough of them are receiving adequate resources and guidance from their school communities.

For students that have missed school due to mental health related obstacles, schools in Massachusetts have partnered with Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) to help students return to their classrooms (Serrano). The program begins with a clinical diagnosis and includes consistent contact with health providers outside of the school (Ibid). Students, many of whom are coming from psychiatric hospital stays, are able to talk to counselors throughout their transition, adjusting to the social and academic environment. BRYT coordinators and teachers work together with students as they integrate back into school, customizing realistic make-up plans and equipping them with better methods of maintaining positive mental health that they emphasize should be a part of their childhood and early adolescence. Even students that aren’t a part of the program are welcomed into the BYRT room, which is intentionally set up to be a relaxing space in order to offer an escape from the pressures of echoing hallways and the constant buzz of assignments, drama, and other stressors.

These tools and support should be provided to students from the beginning of their academic journeys, not just when they reach a crisis state. Research has shown that the best way to help students face these problems as they come up during their academic lives is to have a school-wide approach. Instead of punishing students for symptoms of their medical disorders, schools need to start by examining the underlying causes of these behaviors (Walker). Further, these behaviors need to be diagnosed and actually treated. According to a study by the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools,”students who receive positive behavioral health interventions see improvements on a range of behaviors related to academic achievement, beyond letter grades or test scores” (Ibid). By offering more help to these students, by giving them the opportunity to calm down in comfort zones around school away from the chaos, by highlighting the necessity positive self-talk, healthy nutrition, and enough sleep, we wouldn’t just see improvements in GPAs and test scores (Ibid). These efforts would improve the overall quality of life for these kids – teenagers that used to struggle to get out of bed could be passionately participating in class discussions and getting involved in school clubs, feeling connected to their community and excited about their futures. 

Joe O’Callaghan, head of Stamford Public Schools social work department, emphasizes that we need to be having more conversations with students asking them what they need (Caddell). These conversations are crucial to validate the stigmatized struggles that students are bearing every day without even knowing how they can be helping themselves. The messages that they are receiving about mental illness growing up is that they are expected to be “okay” with phenomenal pressures from home, school, friends, as well as many other factors that can make life, for some, physically unbearable. What these students need is a hand, an offer from people they can trust that they are being listened to and cared for. These shocking statistics of teen suicide and school shootings should not be taken lightly, and we need to recognize that behind every one of those numbers, there is a child that needed help but did not get it. 

Across the boards, young Americans are showing signs of distress leading to extreme cases of violence, isolation, and suicide. We should not be taking these statistics likely. These children need to feel that schools care more about just their grades, and that their positive mental health is more important. If they are feeling hopeless, worthless, or other damaging emotions that keep them from thriving in any and all aspects of their lives, they need to know that they are cared for and supported by their communities. 

Works Cited

In the comments below, please share your own experience, positive or negative, with maintaining healthy habits throughout your academic career. Do you feel that your school has adequately supported you during times that you were overwhelmed with work or outside stress? Have you noticed any internalized stigma that has kept you from asking from help even when you needed it? Feel free to leave any other comments or questions. Thank you!

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COMMENTS: 4
  1. April 27, 2020 by julia

    Hey Channin! Wow, your presentation was incredible! I knew that stigma was real but I did not know it had that much of an effect! I agree that schools need to make students feel more cared for! I think that my school personally has adequately supported me in times when I was overwhelmed but I know that not all schools have the facilities for that! I’m glad you decided to address this topic! Fantastic job!

    • April 28, 2020 by Channin

      Julia, thanks for the comment!! 🙂

  2. April 27, 2020 by Elaine

    Hi Channin! This is a really interesting topic and I don’t think it’s talked about enough. Personally, I know that I have a lot of biases that can prevent me from living a healthy lifestyle sometimes because of prioritizing academics and almost all of my classmates would agree. I think my school is actually pretty good at acknowledging how the students feel, especially because the teachers genuinely care a lot and are understanding. What I’ve gotten better at throughout the years and as my workload has gotten worse is letting myself take mental health days and staying home to rest or catch up on work without feeling guilty. That’s not at all something I would have felt comfortable doing freshman or sophomore year, but I do think it can be very valuable, though there may be stigma that causes people to consider that skipping school.

    • April 28, 2020 by Channin

      Thanks, Elaine! I think it’s wonderful that your school makes efforts to check in with their students. Mental health days are sometimes much needed but I agree, there is definitely stigma against taking time for one’s mental health. I’m glad you can address the biases that you have and I hope you can continue to help others recognize their own. Glad you enjoyed my site, and thanks for the comment!

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