In a country where one in five Americans under 18 have a diagnosable mental disorder, there is a major gap in both understanding and treating mental illness among adolescents. The flawed mental health system results from a lack of quality treatment and the crippling stigma surrounding those suffering from a disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness are developed by age 14; however, only one-third of diagnosed teenagers receive professional help. Americans seem surprised when a tragedy due to a lack of proper treatment occurs, yet there has not been a serious initiative to improve the mental health system since Nellie Bly exposed the dirty secrets of mental institutions in 1887.
The most common mental disorders among adolescents are mood, anxiety, personality, and eating disorders. Schizophrenia, ADHD, and autism are also prevalent. According to Fauquier County Public Schools psychologist Alan Cameron, younger children are more commonly diagnosed with autism or behavioral and developmental problems, while depression and anxiety often manifest in middle and high school students. The school system’s involvement in a student’s mental health can vary from case to case.
“The counseling department is the first line of defense,” Cameron said. “Sometimes the school psychologist is called in for a second opinion, especially if there are questions about risk of harm to self or others. In extreme cases, as with a student who is actively suicidal, we work collaboratively with Regional Behavioral Health to facilitate admission to the nearest adolescent mental health facility. For both legal and pragmatic reasons, schools often have difficulty maintaining communication with the child’s psychiatrist and/or out-of-school counselor.”
Treating a student with mental health issues extends beyond the jurisdiction of the school, as responsibilities for treatment are often turned over to the parents. However, Cameron says receiving effective treatment through medication and/or therapy can be challenging.
“It can be very difficult for parents to find counselors and psychiatrists who specialize in children and adolescents,” Cameron said. “The wait time for an appointment is typically weeks and sometimes months. There is still a lot of trial-and-error involved in finding the right medication, and insurance companies are quite spotty in what they will cover.”
The mental health system is a topic for debate in the media nearly every month, whether a school shooting occurs or a new study is released about teenagers and eating disorders. Statistics support a constant spotlight on mental health – suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents in America, yet only 37 percent of those diagnosed receive treatment for depression. Somehow, the issue is on America’s mind, however, little is being done to help those suffering. The stigma surrounding mental health is as alive as ever, which does not help in any way. At all.
It’s considered out of line to tell a diabetic kid to go eat a cupcake, yet terms such as “schizophrenia,” “bipolar,” and “suicidal” are easily associated by the general public with “violent” and “crazy.” Teenagers suffering from mood and personality disorders are told their condition is just a phase, while those with an eating disorder are told to go eat a cheeseburger. The stigma pushes those who need help into a world of silence and shame. Teens often worry that if they seek help, they could lose friends, college admission, or social status. Mental disorders are often the result of a genetic disposition or a biological imbalance – two factors that are just as out of a patient’s control as asthma or cancer. Until there is a general understanding that mental health is equivalent to physical health, the advancement of proper treatment will be stunted, especially among reputation-conscious teenagers.
The media and Hollywood are partially to blame for society’s perception of mental illness. Every time a tragedy happens, news outlets are quick to ask what was wrong with the perpetrator. The media immediately labels the perpetrator as crazy because they are schizophrenic or autistic, while the tragedy likely occurred because the perpetrator received low quality treatment for their disorder, if they received any help at all. Hollywood has a similar problem – television shows such as Law & Order portray mentally ill criminals in a stereotypical and negative light. A connection between jail, dangerous, and mental illness is forged in viewers minds. However, in Breaking Bad, Hollywood tells America it’s okay to make meth in an RV and murder anyone who gets in your way if you’re dying of cancer. You know, because physical health is tragic and not your fault, while mental health is something you really need to get over.
One way to help eliminate social stigma is a mainstream, national campaign. Through advertisements and publicity, a campaign that puts a face on the issue could be extremely effective. Demi Lovato, for example, has been a wonderful pioneer in eliminating eating disorder stigma – she has admitted her own past problem, given hope to those struggling, and even called out Disney Channel for making a joke in a movie. If more celebrities would stand up like Lovato, many minds could be changed, especially those of the teenagers who are doing the bullying.
Sadly, even if the stigma surrounding mental illness was eliminated completely, the flaws of the health system still exist. A teenage source who wishes to remain anonymous described his stay in a mental hospital as “degrading” and “cruel.”
“I tried to kill myself, and I had anxiety problems, too,” the source said. “We weren’t allowed to even have pencils, because the staff thought we would hurt ourselves. We weren’t allowed outside, and I barely even talked to any real doctors while I was there. I wasn’t even allowed to call home. It was basically like jail, except in jail, you at least get a call.”
When asked if his stay was beneficial to his recovery, the source said the negative effects still linger nearly a year later.
“I still have nightmares about that place,” the source said. “If anything, my entire stay made me want to succeed if I ever tried to kill myself again, so I wouldn’t end up back there. All they cared about was labeling me as crazy, getting me on drugs, and getting the money that comes with the entire corrupted psychiatry industry.”
The filthy profit-driven corruption manifests through the 49 million Americans taking a psychiatric drug. Insurance companies have psychiatrists wrapped around their finger, pressuring unnecessary prescriptions and labeling patients with disorders they may not ever have. Everyone is bound to experience a symptom of depression or anxiety in their lifetime, however, not everyone needs to be on Prozac. When it comes to teens, psychological treatment should only resort to medication in extreme cases. By drugging up vulnerable teens, the symptoms of the disorder are being treated, yet the original problem remains. It’s a lot like when your shoe falls apart and you cover the hole with duct tape. No matter how much duct tape you put on, the shoe still has a hole in it, and the duct tape doesn’t do anything except hide that.
Corruption in the psychiatric system can be addressed with legislation. To avoid inappropriate prescribing, the FDA needs to enact tighter requirements for prescriptions drugs – currently, any FDA approved drug may be prescribed by a licensed doctor for anything.
Americans need to face the raw facts. Psychiatry is corrupted. Depression is not a phase, eating disorders aren’t joke material, and schizophrenia does not make someone crazy. Bad things will happen. There will be another school shooting. Kids are going to keep killing themselves. Someone you know might develop a disorder, whether it’s your brother or your own child. There is no pretty way to put it. However, as a country, we need to start working to at least improve statistics surrounding mental health. If adolescents with mental health issues were treated more effectively, America would see fewer headlines about mental illness gone wrong. We can keep pointing fingers at the parents who must have raised them wrong, the doctors who over-drug the nut cases, or the children who need to act more normal, but in reality, voting and pushing for legislation and eliminating the social stigma are what we can do on a day-to-day basis to keep adolescents from falling through the system’s cracks.
~Abby Seitz, sports director