Shame at School: What Keeps Teens From Asking for Help?

How stigma is keeping students quiet.

Written by Meg Walters

Shame at School: What Keeps Teens From Asking for Help?

01 Shame and stigma play a pivotal role in the way young people address their mental health.

02 Katie and Nina explain how they hid their conditions from people at school, and their hesitancy to seek treatment.

03 While it can be difficult to navigate school with a mental disorder, there is a growing movement among Gen Z to normalize mental health and eliminate stigma.

Our teen years can be tough. The pressures of school, complexity of new, raging hormones, and the complications of navigating high school social life can lead to a myriad of stressors and anxieties. 

And if those factors weren’t enough, roughly one in five American teens experience at least one mental disorder as well. 

While mental health problems are never easy, they can be particularly difficult for adolescents. In fact, teens around the world have been shown to be more likely than other age groups to delay seeking help. 

In 2016, the YMCA in the U.K. found that stigma plays a big part in teens’ reluctance to speak up. 75% of teens believe that stigma surrounding mental illness can lead to people being treated negatively. 38% of teens reported experiencing stigma and 59% of these people reported that this happened at school. Often, the stigma came from their own friends.

Stigma plays a big part in teens’ reluctance to speak up.

Katie, a 23-year-old actor and writer in Toronto, experienced a range of mental health problems in high school which began when she was around 15. As things got worse and worse, she felt more and more desperate to hide what she was going through from her peers. 

After spending time in a children’s psych ward, she created an alternate reality to shield herself from judgement and stigma. Desperate to be seen as “normal,” she told friends she’d been on holiday. “I was like, ‘Cool, we’ll just strategically avoid looking at the truth,’” she recalls.

When it came to seeking help, Katie explains she was simply not interested in speaking to professionals either. For her, opening up would mean dropping the facade of normalcy that she had worked so hard to create at school.

For her final year of high school, she retreated even further inside herself. “I just didn’t talk to anybody for all of grade 12,” she says. “Any time I’d go between classes I wouldn’t linger in case people talked to me.” Of course, as she explains, this isolation only made things worse and it became even harder to consider opening up to friends or therapists.

After graduating, Katie found that social media became a space where she could begin to open up about her experiences with mental illness. By communicating, she began to find ways of coping and accepting her real self.

Opening up would mean dropping the facade of normalcy that she had worked so hard to create.

Nina, a 20-year-old based in Cardiff, also found it almost impossible to open up about her symptoms of mental illness in high school. She began to realize that she had symptoms of OCD when she was 12, but it took her five long years before she finally sought professional help.

The first hurdle was to admit to herself that there was a problem. “I kept telling myself I should just ‘get a grip,’” she recalls. Because her school had few options for mental health counseling and she didn’t feel comfortable opening up to her peers, she didn’t seek help until her final year of school, when she finally received her diagnosis for OCD.

The fear of judgement was a huge factor in Nina’s silence. “I’d say it’s because of the stigma that it took me so long to seek help,” she says. 

The lack of education amongst her peers didn’t help either. “People definitely didn’t understand the severity of living with mental illness,” she says, “And our school certainly didn’t educate us or make an effort to spread awareness about it.” 

Like Katie, Nina was desperate to keep anyone at school from knowing. “I wouldn’t say anyone was specifically targeting my OCD, but I did feel that anyone that was ‘different’ was ridiculed,” she says. When Nina had to perform some compulsions at school, she recalls, “people giving me the weirdest looks.” 

I ask her what would have happened if she had been more open about her condition while at school. She explains, “I couldn’t be open about it, because I knew people would either not take it seriously and not recognize how debilitating it is, or potentially trivialize it to the extent where I would feel incredibly uncomfortable.”

I’d say it’s because of the stigma that it took me so long to seek help.

Sadly, Katie and Nina's stories are not unusual. We spoke with Tara Krueger, Psy.D., Clinical Director for Newport Academy, a teen rehab center in Seattle. She explains that stigma and a lack of education often prevents teens from seeking help from parents or professionals. In many cases, teens fall into a pattern of actively hiding their symptoms. “A panic attack or emergency room visit may force a family to recognize what is going on and take action,” she says.

Even when teens reach a point where it’s obvious that they need help, Dr. Krueger explains, many still find it difficult to open up. “Teens can be reluctant to speak up about mental health issues for fear of being judged or labeled by parents or peers,” Dr. Krueger says.

This fear of being labeled is a key element in understanding why stigma is especially dangerous for teens. For Katie and Nina, the pressures to be “normal” in high school were all-consuming. Both women were terrified that their mental illness would place them in a box and that their peers would never look at them in the same way again. 

For teenagers, identity is everything. When we are teenagers, we begin to develop a sense of who we are. Our peer groups become more and more important as we establish who we will become as adults. 

Teens are terrified of how their mental health problems might give them a whole new identity—one they didn’t choose for themselves. For both Katie and Nina, the sense of a pervasive stigma in their schools meant that opening up or actively seeking help would mean being re-identified as the “abnormal” or the “strange” one.

For all teens, school can be a terrifying place. For teens who need help with mental health disorders, it can also be a dangerous one. A lack of nuanced education about mental health along with the debilitating pressures to “fit in” mean that teens are plagued with shame when it comes to mental illness.

Not only do they often find it extremely difficult to vocalize their symptoms to friends, family, or professionals, they can also begin to isolate themselves for fear of being “found out.” 

It’s clear that there is an undercurrent of stigma in schools surrounding mental illness and for many teens, suffering in silence often feels like the only viable option. 

Of course, things are beginning to look up. As Katie tells me, she is seeing more and more Gen Z teens today talking about mental health a little more openly. There is a growing online movement amongst teens to destigmatize mental illness and make schools safer spaces. 

As Dr. Krueger says, “This has been aided by social media exchanges and high-profile celebrities opening up about their own struggles.” If a teen is exposed to what Dr. Krueger calls “a culture of acceptance and understanding,” they will find it easier to seek help and stop hiding their symptoms.

Suffering in silence often feels like the only viable option.

While it’s impossible for parents to change stigma at school, they can help to foster a culture of acceptance at home. Dr. Krueger suggests that parents work on fostering an open, meaningful connection with their teens. “Parent-teen communication doesn’t need to be stressful,” she says. “It is important for the parent to contain their own emotions, so the teen does not worry that they are too much for their parent to handle or that speaking up will cause more problems in their relationship or in the family.” 

There’s still a long way to go in destigmatizing mental health disorders for teens. The more we encourage open and informed communication at home, online and in schools, the closer we move towards a society where teens don’t fear speaking up and where they feel safe enough to seek out the help they need.

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