2022 Mental Health Essay Contest Awardee: Silver
It's Time to Rebrand Mental Illness: Addressing the Crisis of Stigmatization
Early in the pandemic, I realized how unprepared my generation was for the type of isolation and loneliness we were suddenly forced to endure. The most unsettling aspect was watching previously happy, high-achieving members of my social circles suddenly become distant and uninterested in things they used to enjoy. What hit me the hardest was watching my cousin’s quick decline. I witnessed both sides of the battle as a friend and a family member. My cousin had always excelled at everything he did; he was a straight ‘A’ student and a top athlete before the pandemic. Yet, within a short period of time, he lost interest in school and told his parents he was quitting the team.
Our family was desperate to fix the situation and return him back to “normal.” However, it became apparent very quickly that there was no easy fix and requesting help from the school could cause him possible stigmatization. Our family worried that he might be judged by his peers, teachers, and future college admission boards, losing opportunities due to being associated with a mental illness. When they eventually reached out to the school, he was assigned a mental health coach. The school’s intervention was not achieving any noticeable results, and his parents were unsure how to move forward, what treatments were available, and how to seek help when at home.
My family’s frustration did not end there. We went through the three standard steps: diagnosis, medication, and finding a therapist. This sounds easy enough but being given labels that are often stigmatized is extremely hard for an adolescent, and my cousin struggled with the term “depression”. After his diagnosis, he was subjected to ever-changing medications until they found one that numbed his emotions while still allowing him to function. Finding the right therapist required being put on multiple waitlists, and several therapists didn’t accept insurance. Only when these first three options were exhausted did they inform my family of different types of therapy and treatments available, such as cognitive behavior therapy, humanistic therapy, integrative or holistic therapy, etc.
My cousin’s story is not uncommon; with the events we have collectively endured over the past two years, mental illness is on the rise globally. After watching several peers and my cousin struggle, I can’t help but wonder why such a prevalent issue is not being managed better. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an immediate push to teach the general population how they could protect themselves and others. There were media campaigns and public health protocols enacted within a matter of weeks. Everyone knew what they needed to do and where to go if they had concerns. I genuinely feel that we are now facing a mental health crisis without the resources or unity to bring understanding and healing to a suffering population. Why are schools not tackling mental illness with the same fervor as COVID-19 when suicide is the 4th leading cause (1) of death in youth aged 15–19 years old? What will happen to the individuals who don’t receive proper support? Statistics tell us that they will have a much greater risk of addiction, ending up in prison or on the streets, or even losing their lives to suicide. A recent study (2) stated that one in five youth between the ages of twelve to eighteen suffers from at least one diagnosable mental health disorder. That’s one in five youth who may not reach their full potential without intervention.
How we see a perceived problem is pivotal to how we react to it. It can be seen as a threat, often resulting in overreaction or avoidance, or it can be seen as something manageable, diminishing the perceived risk and enabling us to face it and resolve the issue. Many individuals feel being labeled as having a mental illness threatens their reputation, friendships, career, and future. They often worry it will negatively impact their loved ones by association. Now imagine this stress amplified by the vulnerable perceptions of an adolescent. Their world often feels very small, and how their peers, teachers, coaches, and family view them is detrimental to how they view themselves. The pressure to be the best version of themselves, achieve good grades, and be well-liked is ever-present. By opening up about the prevalence of mental illnesses and educating our youth on the signs, causes, and treatments, we change the perception of the illness from a threat to something common and manageable.
I believe this change should start in junior high and continue throughout our years in public and secondary school. I decided to start a non-profit organization to help fill the gaps I noticed in my community to demystify and destigmatize mental health in youth. We organize several programs to expand our reach, interviewing guest speakers on topics such as mental health stigma, education, and social anxiety.
I joined the Youth Advisory Group of allcove, a project started by the Stanford Center that addresses youth mental health and well-being through peer-led community involvement. I serve as the Youth Advisor, ensuring we provide an inclusive and safe environment for children, adolescents, and youth in our community. Being part of the advisory team has allowed me to network within the larger mental health movement and receive the latest training on topics like suicide prevention and anti-racism.
Instead of a cold, clinical setting where youth go to be diagnosed and evaluated, allcove creates a safe and welcoming space with peers they can relate to. Through my personal experiences with mental illness and the knowledge gained through my work with a allcove, I’ve realized how important it is to expand these resources across the country. By creating allcove centers in local communities throughout the nation, we can spread a model of mental health care that emphasizes the voices of youth in an engaging and inclusive way.
While it feels incredible knowing that I am actively helping my peers in their fight against mental illness, I can’t help but worry about the teens silently fighting this battle alone because they are afraid to reach out. Stigmatization exacerbates the mental health crisis within our country, but by re-branding mental illness, we can remove the fear of being associated with it. Seeking help for mental illness should be seen as a proactive step, much like going to the gym to improve our physical health. If we genuinely want to be an inclusive society, mental illness must be included in that paradigm shift. Organizations like allcove are leading the way in changing the conversation. Let’s open up the floor for discussion and normalize talking about mental health.
- World Health Organization. (2021, November 17). Adolescent mental health. World Health Organization. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health
- Principles Academy for Adolescent Wellness. (2020, August 25). Teen Mental Health: Facts & Statistics. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://adolescentwellnessacademy.com/teen-mental-health-facts-statistics/
NIH recognizes these talented essay winners for their thoughtfulness and creativity in addressing youth mental health. These essays are written in the students' own words, are unedited, and do not necessarily represent the views of NIH, HHS, or the federal government.
Page updated September 28, 2022