I remember sitting in class, feeling my heart beat out of my chest as I confessed to my best friend “Yeah…that’s why you’ve been seeing me lose lots of weight. It was my depression.” She stared down at her paper, I thought she was ignoring me, but soon raised her head and said “Well we’re having an event at church this weekend and I think you should come.” She then went on saying how many individuals her church had “saved” and I thought to myself “Wow I should’ve really just stayed quiet.” Why did she think I had to be “saved” ? Did my best friend think something was wrong me with ? That I was possibly broken goods? I quickly regretted my decision of opening up to someone about something so sensitive. Ever since that occured I am much more reluctant to whom I tell about my personal life, including my own struggles with mental illness. Young adults who have mental illnesses face stereotypes which become barriers to their happiness and hinder their ability to become the best possible version of themselves.
There are a lot of misconceptions about mental disorders that lead to false stereotypes about individuals who do struggle from them. Mental illness is defined as “..a disease of the mind or brain that seriously affects a person’s thoughts, emotions, personality, or behavior” (“Mental Illness”, 2015). Though the list of mental illness is a long one, the most common ones are depression, bipolar disease, or anxiety disorders such as OCD or panic disorder. Everyone has probably felt as if they’ve hit ‘rock bottom’ at least once in their life, and it’s normal for one to have mood swings and stressful feelings. However, a person with a diagnosed mental disorder experiences continuous and intense emotions that affect their day to day abilities. They may no longer be their old self, become distanced, or might even experience a change of personalities which are all already somewhat normal and very common with average teenagers. The NAMI website, National Alliance on Mental Illness, shows that statistics prove that 21.4% of teenagers will experience a severe mental illness in their lifetime that alter their daily activities.
Teenagers with mental illness are discriminated against by the stereotype that if one has a mental health issue it’s because they are not close enough to God, that they must seek his power for recovery. During the teenage years an individual is initially trying to make their own beliefs and thoughts about the world in whatever way they want, and it’s an immoral thing when they are faced with the silly idea that by becoming more religious a mental disorder is somehow incapable of occuring. Teenagers have to face very silly stereotypes about their disorder(s) simply because of miseducation of the causes of it. As stated in the Medical Model of Mental Illness entry in the Mental Health Care Issues in America Encyclopedia some individuals in society sadly still believe that the psychological problems are “…a result of supernatural problems such as possession or the result of dabbling in the dark arts, or as moral failings” (“Medical Model of Mental Illness”, 2015). Those who support this stereotype are basically telling mentally ill teenagers to go to church, as if the problem involves being possessed or something by those means. Teenagers might feel embarrassed that others have this idea of them and therefore are not open to discussing or admitting to their illness. Of course, having the idea of hope and faith installed in one will probably create a healthier atmosphere in which one can find refuge and not become so engulfed with their mental health problems. However, causes of mental health problems go beyond religion. They consist of physical damage to the brain, though this cause is a rare one. Scientists rely more on the idea that chemical imbalances in the brain such as neurotransmitters, which carry messages from nerve to nerve, are what results in having these strong and persistent emotions that consume a teenager’s life (“Mental Illness”, 2015). Social and psychological factors meaning something extremely stressful that someone experienced from a young age can contribute to the likelihood of developing a mental healthcare issue, not just what so many religious people believe as a possession of demons (“Mental Illness”, 2015). Going through traumatic experiences from a young age, chemical imbalances, physical damage, or simply the genetics we carry can all contribute to this, therefore it’s wrong to assume it has to do with religious activities.
Stereotypes toward individuals with mental illness is clearly a problem in this country, but even worse stereotypes on teenagers cause them to underperform. Author Claude Steele writes in his book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us that the continuous thinking of the way others view you “…can directly interfere with performance, especially when what you are doing is at the limits of your skills and knowledge”(Steele 111). Stereotypes are not just something that casually sticks with our identity simply because we are the way we are, but rather actually creates a real problem when it affects our ability to perform our daily activities. For example, those who do suffer from depression might feel attacked by the stereotype that others think they are mentally weak. These individuals are not mentally weak, or lazy as the stereotype predicts, as if it’s a choice to have depression. The stress that comes from continuously thinking about the stereotypes placed on the mentally ill causes them to be so worried about it that they can’t perform or behave in other ways they wished for the fear of being judged. Steele marks an important question of “What can be done to reduce the unwanted effects of stereotype threat in society and in their lives?” (Steele 98). This question places the idea that of course there is negative stigma associated with young adults with mental health disorders. However, if by reducing the stigma associated with mental healthcare issues these individuals can feel that there is less of a threat to their identity, then clearly as a society there should be more done to do this. He also believes that when stereotypes are present they “…divert attention and mental capacity away from the task at hand, which worsens performance and general functioning, all of which further exacerbates anxiety…” (Steele 126). Not only is there a mental cycle caused by stereotypes placed on these individuals, but it must be exhausting to multitask in a way that those who do have a mental illness must behave in a way that doesn’t confirm any stereotypes to their condition.
To add, the stigma associated in teenagers with mental disorders contribute to the reason why these teens cannot perform at their best potential. Perhaps, the stigma between violence and mental illness have become more common after the mass shootings that occured by individuals with undiagnosed mental disorders. For instance, after the Sandy Hook shooting where an individual who suffered from several mental health issues not only killed his mother at home but later went to an elementary to shoot 20 small children and staff members there was a lot of controversy about the correlation between mass shootings and the perpetrators having some sort of mental health issue(s). Rebekah Diamond, pediatrician at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian, wrote an article on the online newspaper site The Hill that proposed gun legislations tried to get passed in hopes to target both mental health care in teenagers as well as gun restrictions, but the problem is that while these legislations were thought to be “…well-intentioned, allowing for these topics to be discussed together is based on a series of problematic assumptions and leads to equally problematic results” (Diamond). It easily gave off the idea that a mentally ill teenager is more capable of killing and therefore should as a society we should be more ‘alert’ and cautious toward them. These teens become internalized, that is they begin to accept the stigma society has placed on them. As Steele mentions in his book “This internalization damages “character” by causing low self-esteem, low expectations, low motivation, self-doubt, and the like” (Steele, 26). One does not imagine the kind of damage this causes on mentally ill teens and with all other stereotypes about them which cause them to become distant. This now becomes a barrier to truly being happy in a society where there’s so much stigma associated with what they have to live with. By removing the stigma and realizing that not all people with depression are suicidal, not all people with bipolar disorder are “crazy”, and that not all people with schizophrenia should be labeled as “dangerous”, then as a society there will be a healthier environment created for teenagers with mental illnesses. They would feel more appreciated, and way more valued as members of society. They wouldn’t have to feel that having a mental disorder is a flaw or as if they have to hide it in order to live a normal life.
Stereotypes on mentally ill teenagers demeans their identity because after continuous prejudice against them, they start to believe they’re less worthy. Society has placed the idea that they aren’t “normal” and teenagers can easily fall into believing this. It will not only make it harder for them to be open about their disorder but because the world already has these beliefs about youths who need professional help, it places a barrier in them trying to actually seek help and recognize that they have a problem. Nobody likes to feel judged, nobody likes to be negatively talked about, and nobody likes to be outcasted. Therefore, to a teenager it might seem so much easier to just stay quiet and suffer silently. Steele proves this in his book as he says that nobody has to actually say anything about the stereotype because one knows it already exists, “…you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group…survival and success versus failure in an area that is important to you…” (Steee, 111). In this way teenagers with mental disorder(s) are now mentally working twice as hard as somebody without a mental issue because they don’t want to prove a stereotype correct and therefore have their identity affected. Furthermore, Debria Bryfonski, book editor of Depression in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar tells the real life story and background of Sylvia Plath who was a perfectionist female and was undiagnosed with depression up until her marriage, until she received at-home care. Plath begins to have identity issues because she is so confused with her own mental health problems and the harsh reality that she is not receiving any emotional support whatsoever make her “….an unwilling captive of her background and conditioning; external familial and social pressures war with her natural instincts, and her eve of self-confidence is far too low for those instincts to assert themselves sufficiently “(Bryfonski, 72). Plath was torn with the reality that she felt of lesser value because her family around her did not support her or even believe in the reality of how a mental disorder can affect an individual. Once again, this goes back to the miseducation on how important awareness on emotional health is.
Individuals with mental illness are easily judged as not competent enough. Society has this idea that if they’re not “normal” then they can’t function to their full ability. This idea makes a teenager, who can already be easily vulnerable to stereotypes, belief that they are actually not good enough. When even someone as the president refers to those who have had mental illness as “very sick puppies”, it becomes a problem. Teenagers are hardly able to ask for help, to acknowledge and accept what’s happening to them and much less do they not want pity from others. This will only make the situation worse. For example, as Paul Sonne said in his newspaper article titled Trump rankles veterans with comments about PTSD and California shooter something similar to this occured when after the Thousand Oaks shooting at a bar the president made a statement saying that veterans who come back from war “…are never the same” (Sonne 1). While even psychologists agree with this, the kind of stereotype spread about this is that individuals who have some sort of mental health problem are damaged goods, as if we should be afraid of them. These kind of comments contribute to why so many people don’t really understand the difference between having a mental illness and being in some sort of way “defective”. Obviously, no one wants others to think lesser of them, therefore teenagers find it so hard to open up, to admit, to share their struggles. They are afraid, ultimately this barrier to their happiness affects all aspects of their life. This contributes to the discrimination that these individuals face such as not being able to be part of certain government departments, such as the FBI. Those who do want to join are investigated so much that too many considered psychological problems are enough to not being able to join. Essentially, it hammers their reputation from a young age as ‘not good enough’. Of course, younger people tend to be more immature and the acknowledgement that one of their classmates or someone just like them could be suffering from a mental illness might (for them) be seen as an excuse to spread gossip or lies about them. Once again, of course no teenager enjoys going through this. This could further on lead to bullying. Teenagers could be so cruel with their words and because they might not have a clear understanding of what a mental illness is, they’ll tease the individual, leaving them with more broken pieces to fix. Now, not only has the teenager felt judged, attacked, and not worthy enough but if there is any sort of teasing from classmates they might not want to disclose how truly bad they feel in the future. They would now rather prefer to suffer in silence.
The absurdity of the prejudice against teenagers with mental illness goes as far as many people in America being literally afraid of individuals with mental illness. This goes back to the idea that citizens tend to think of the mentally is as dangerous human beings. Though they do have irrational thoughts, why does society always jump to conclusions and assume that we must be afraid of these individuals? This contributes to the reason as to why teenagers find it so hard to seek help, they don’t want their friends and family members to be afraid of them. Perhaps it relates to the stigma that only those with mental health problems are capable of killing, however as stated by Diamond on her The Hill article surprisingly less than 1% of all mass shootings are committed with individuals with mental disorder(s) (Diamond). This is prove to how these type of stigmas must be broken, so that teenagers living with mental health issues can live freely without any false association that they could possibly be dangerous.
One could easily see how all of these problems surrounding young adults with mental illnesses would create a barrier to happiness. It’s more than just the continuous judgement against these individuals. It has to do with how they are aware of their identity contingencies and how for simply having a mental illness that ultimately isn’t even their fault they cannot be viewed as equally important as those that do not have a mental illness. In addition, Plato, a Greek philosopher, believed in the principles of a just society. This just and equal society must not have one person better than anyone else. He greatly emphasized that happiness should be of the whole society and not just have individual happiness prioritized. He also thought that there should be no ignorance therefore the people of a society must be educated. When Plato’s ideal society connects with the way teenagers with mental illness are being treated, it is clear that Plato’s idea is being violated. Plato believes that happiness should be of the whole like previously mentioned and not just individually, but when the stereotypes mentioned are placed on young adults with mental illness their happiness is limited. The stereotypes already existing and the way society views the mentally ill as less worthy does not alienate with Plato’s belief that everyone should have an equal place in society. Furthermore, there appears to not be enough education on the idea that the mentally ill are as valuable as those without a similar problem. Plato states in the book The Republic that through educating everyone in a given society there will be less ignorance (Plato, 70). One can assume that by educating individuals from a small age, even in schools there will be less harsh views towards teens with mental illness.
The solution to a problem doesn’t start by one person making a difference. There will never be a single person who will be able to change all the damage that’s continuously being done (consciously or unconsciously) toward mentally ill teens. Instead, as a nation we should take a good look at what’s already being done and the ways in which we can strengthen the views toward teens who helplessly have mental illnesses. There could be more apps, PSA’s, and even commercials on awareness and with the purpose that teenagers and family members will seek out help before it’s too late. Mental health disorders affect every aspect of an adolescents life. However, if one can detect it and manage it at an earlier time the better. A teenager’s mental health greatly affects how they are performing at school. They can even be missing class because of their problems, and accumulating this will only bring more stress. Therefore, it is best to create a proposition where it is mandatory to have a mental health class instructed by a professional counselor through the adolescent years.
What should be proposed is a legislation that there should be mental healthcare classes available to all students, public or private schools, which can create a “safe harbor” for young adults to understand that it is indeed okay to have a mental illness. Not only talking about the different disorders and spreading awareness about it, but teenagers sometimes also need stress management skills and emotional health ‘talks’ in hopes to create two goals. One is that through the spread of education that this country greatly needs, all individuals who suffer from a mental health issue can be accepted and valued as any other member in society. The other is that teenagers would know that it is okay to have the symptoms of a mental disorder and seek help, as early treatment is best. It would also be a benefit to have the accurate information about what mental health disorders are and how they affect one’s daily live instructed to individuals from a very young age. Altogether, if schools all over our nation could provide a class like this then the stigmas mentioned above could be broken down, making it so much easier for a teenager to access their happiness in our society.
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