Things less understood—such as mental health—often carry an underlying stigma, or misunderstood prejudice and stereotype.
Emotions and thoughts—such as those that come with reading this article—are part of human nature and connected to mental health. Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, social status, race or philosophical beliefs.
With the advancement in brain research in recent decades, brain behavior and mental illness have become much better understood. However, science and research have not been able to completely solve all the mysteries of the brain—and data can only do so much to erase the hesitancy and uncertainty behind discussing mental and emotional health.
According to psychiatry.org, 54 million Americans are affected annually by one or more mental disorders. Mental illness falls into five main categories: anxiety disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia, dementias and eating disorders.
Mental health itself is a topic that is not always portrayed in popular media in a positive light. For example, Hollywood movies have, for many years, depicted their own version of mental health in the form of mental illness. In the Hollywood versions, individuals are usually violent and irrational.
Unfortunately, this negative representation of mental health in popular culture and media has contributed directly to certain taboo sensationalism surrounding the issue. As a result, critical conversations about mental health that need to happen are not taking place. Specifically, teen mental health is a topic that is even less addressed or covered.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, adolescence is a significant period for mental, emotional and social wellbeing and development. At this time, the brain undergoes formation of critical behavioral patterns and forms neural pathways that will last into adulthood.
Many are under the false impression that only adults face mental health problems, perhaps because the world’s most stressful issues do not always seem to directly be related to young people. However, school or family-related stress can often cause teens to face mental stress that, if left untreated, can lead to mental illness.
Since teen mental health is an issue that receives relatively little coverage, young people who actually need help may be afraid to ask for it. This pessimism brings with it many damaging myths surrounding the psychological health of teenagers. Because of this, teens facing mental health issues may feel ostracized and alone in their fight.
A common misconception is that teens faced with a mental illness or disorders are weak. Personal weaknesses do not contribute to the mental health of an individual. Rather, research by the National Institute of Health (NIH) show that mental health is affected by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. It cannot be cured by simply “thinking positive.” Treatment options, such as therapy and counseling can, in the long-run, help mental health return to stability.
This is an issue that cannot be gauged by physical appearance. In contrast to youth suffering physical pain, children and teens battling psychiatric issues often keep their pain secret. By expressing feelings, these teens fear being judged or shamed by their peers—thus the majority of youth choose not to receive the care needed to improve, according to teenshealth.org.
It is essential to keep in mind that although a teenager may be battling a mental disorder, in no way does it mean future happiness and fulfillment will be impossible. With early intervention and support from loved ones, this is a fight that can be won.
Popular culture and media has contributed to much of the stigma surrounding mental health. But ironically, they also hold the power to eradicate this stigma by shedding a more positive light on the issue. In turn, this can turn into a positive movement to inform and change negative perceptions and eradicate negative stigma.
Q & A WITH LOURDES TORRES SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST
Q. What is the process for a student to receive counseling on mental health ISSUES? A. Typically, staff members collaborate with the school administrators, counselors and school-based mental health agencies. The district also provides training sessions for staff on how to be mandated reporters and informs them of the support system that is offered at school. The school also has a social worker who meets with students.I have an open door policy, but there’s so many students that they should be filtered through to the counselor. I recommend that students see their counselor first, in case I am busy. However, if the student’s situation is an emergency, such as suicidal ideation, then I highly recommend that the student talks to a teacher or staff member who will notify me, and I will take action immediately. It’s important that the teacher informs the administration, counselors or psychologist. Since I am not a clinician or therapist, I refer students to mental health services.
Every school in our district works with various school-based mental health agencies. If the family has the correct insurance, a therapist can come during school hours and meet with the student on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, depending on the needs of the student. I also encourage parents to seek therapy services for their child through private insurance, if they do not qualify for school-based services.
It’s important that students who see me are aware that I am a mandated reporter, like other school employees. The staff always notifies campus police when we are suspecting any major concerns with students. Our goal is to protect students from harm. We will report the situation if we suspect any of the following: a student is planning to hurt him or herself, or someone else; is hurting him or herself; or someone is hurting the student. If something is truly affecting their life, they need to seek our help. I encourage students not to be afraid when talking to their counselor or myself because ultimately what matters is their safety. It’s a scary process, but I congratulate them; there’s always a positive change and good ending.
Q. How is mental illness different from physical ailments, and what are the school’s policies towards each?
A. Based on my experiences, there can be a correlation between mental and physical illnesses. Headaches, sweatiness, fast heart rates and loss of appetite tend to be symptoms of mental illnesses, such as anxiety. Students might think they are merely physically sick, so they go to the nurse’s office instead. The nurses watch for students who go to their office often; they might have something beyond a physical ailment. It is important that students monitor any changes in their bodies and seek help from an adult.
Q. Is there a stigma toward mental illness?
People feel that going to therapy is for crazy people. There’s denial; no parent wants to accept that their child is anxious, suicidal or depressed. But sometimes students hide it so well that their parents have no way of knowing. For example, when a student is cutting, a big sign is when he or she wears long sleeves in warm seasons to hide something. Sometimes, there are parents that are aware of this and call the school to get direction and support. My approach is that I am very direct; I am not insensitive, but I know what questions to ask. People don’t know how to differentiate mental illness from mental phases. There needs to be more awareness.