RAYSAC Rader! Stigma keeps teens from receiving mental health treatment

by Hugh C. McBridel

Spend much time around teenagers and you won’t have trouble coming up with a number of adjectives to describe their attitudes and behaviors, but “shy” probably won’t be at the top of the list. From attention-grabbing fashion decisions to passionate beliefs to a somewhat disquieting tendency to share intimate and outlandish thoughts and images with the world via the Internet, today’s teens seem to be fearless when it comes to expressing themselves on any topic that is important to them. But on at least one important issue – depression – too many young people are remaining quiet.

The June issue of the journal Medical Care contained a study from the Rand Corporation indicating that the stigma of depression and the potentially negative reactions of family members are the top reasons why depressed teens don’t seek treatment for their mental health problems.

According to a May 27 HealthDay News article, the Rand study included 368 teens (half of whom had been diagnosed with depression) and one parent or guardian for each teen. All study subjects (teens and adults) were asked to rate the following potential obstacles to receiving treatment for depression: cost of mental health care; concerns over perceptions of others; trouble making appointments; time constraints and other responsibilities; not wanting family members to know about the depression; inability to find good care and lack of desire to be treated.

The teens who participated in the study listed worries about the stigma that is often attached to depression and the potential for negative reactions from family members as primary reasons for not seeking treatment for their depression.

“With teenagers, treatment decisions greatly involve other parties, especially parents,” the Rand study’s lead author, Lisa Meredith, said in the HealthDay News article. “For instance, teenagers often rely on adults for transportation. Doctors need a sense not just of what the teen thinks or what the parents think, but what both think.”

Left untreated, mental illness and depression can lead to self-medication with alcohol and illegal substances that can turn into addiction. The fact that teen depression is a widespread problem in the United States was established long before the recent Rand report, as was the degree to which teen depression has gone under treated.

In an Aug. 9, 2007 essay that appeared on the ABC News website, Dr. James Potash wrote about the problem of under treated teen depression and specifically addressed the role that stigma plays in the reluctance of depressed teens to get treatment.

“Major depression, or clinical depression, is a disease of the brain, much like asthma is a disease of the lungs,” Dr. Potash wrote. “And, as with asthma, it is no one’s fault that the disease occurs – not the fault of the person suffering, and not the fault of parents or others.”

As the Rand study indicates, many depressed teens realize that they are suffering from a mental health problem, but are afraid to seek treatment due to fears of negative reactions from friends or family members.

But this is not the only reason that many cases of teen depression remain untreated. Many depressed teens may not even realize that they are suffering from depression. For example, teen depression often manifests itself in attitudes and behaviors that lead the depressed teen to be categorized as a “bad kid,” a normal teen just passing through a “phase,” or number of other categories that downplay (or ignore) the presence of depression. Depressed teens face a number of misunderstandings and stigmas, but help is available. With effective treatment, teens can overcome their depression and pursue a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling future.