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Overcoming the Taboo of Mental Illness for Teens

Published on: December 30, 2013

By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

imagesDo you remember the first time you learned that someone you knew committed suicide? Probably you were a teenager, and it was someone you knew vaguely, removed by 3 or 4 degrees of separation. It came as a shock, followed by guilt and a fantasy that maybe you could have made a difference if you had offered enough friendship or assistance in getting help for the person.

At least 90% of suicidal people suffer from depression and other mental disorders, often in combination with substance abuse. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens (surpassed by homicide and accidents).That means teens die more often from mental illness than any other kind of illness. Yes, more than cancer. Is suicide preventable? Yes, if those with psychological distress get help. Most suicidal teens give signals and show symptoms of depression and distress. So, if enough public education can be made available, family and friends can recognize the signs and encourage these at-risk individuals to seek treatment, right?

Yes, but…

One big hitch. The huge taboo about having a mental illness is still rampant. A study in Britain indicated that people would rather admit to being gay than having mental health problems. Teenagers have a tough time with being short, having acne and just plain being flawed in any way. Add mental disorders to the mix, and the vulnerability can be excruciating and intolerable. It doesn’t help that some of kids’ favorite put-downs can include disparagements like, “You are so emo," “Have you taken your medications today?” and “You are psycho.”

Like the complex issues of race, gender equity, and body weight, parents need to take a stand and teach their children to have empathy for those that have experienced discrimination. Like death, sex and other taboo but important life subjects, parents need to overcome their anxiety about discussing difficult issues. They need to tell their kids in affirmative terms that people with mental illness come by it as innocently as people with any other illness. They deserve our respect and need our support.

Interventions that offer at-risk kids learn coping skills can prevent depression. Learn more about depression and suicide at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or make a phone call any time to talk to a crisis counselor for guidance:1-800-273-TALK. Reach out. Connect. Maybe you can help a depressed or even suicidal person.

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