Helping teens deal with stigmas associated with mental illness

Adolescence can be a lonely time under the best circumstances, and teenagers living with mental illness can find themselves even more isolated. Parents and schools can have enormous influence in either protecting against or magnifying stigmas young people encounter because of their illness, according to researchers.

teenage girls sitting against a wall

In one of the first studies of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 with mental illness and taking medications, researchers from Case Western Reserve University Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences found that at least 90 percent of the study’s participants reported experiencing some form of stigma associated with their illness. Moreover, they reported feelings of shame, secrecy and limited social interaction.

Individuals—both young and old—with mental illnesses suffer from public and self-stigmas. Much is known about the stigmas endured by adults, and researchers wanted to compare the experience of adolescents. They were concerned about how youth internalized public discrimination, or stereotyping of their illnesses, and if these stigmas experienced at a young age might impact individuals as adults.

Parents can play a positive or negative role in helping their child cope with stigmas, researchers found. Those who embrace their children and accept the illness as part of the child’s being help their children overcome stigmas, according to Derrick Kranke, the lead author of the article "Stigma Experience Among Adolescents Taking Psychiatric Medications."

On the other hand, parents can contribute to a youth's feeling of being different. Researchers also found that the school environment can have negative impacts on young people if they feel ostracized by their peers and teachers.

Kranke, a former elementary school teacher and postdoctoral scholar at the Mandel School, says the study's information aided researchers in building a model to demonstrate how stigma impacts young people. Educators and social workers can design interventions to break the cycle in schools and help students accept their illnesses and become integrated into the school environment.