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Not another statistic: combating the mental health stigma

Kathleen Kimmey, Staff Writer

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On June 14th, 2017, I had my firs panic attack. It was likely one of the scariest things I have ever had to go through, as I had never experienced one before. I felt a rush of terror and pain, like a wave rushing over my body that I was incapable of stopping, trying to hold my breath as I got carried away. When it was over, I was left shaking and sobbing because I always considered myself a rational person and suddenly having irrational thoughts made me concerned about my state of health. When my mom suggested visiting the psychiatrist, I was skeptical because I thought that nothing would be able to calm me down and my problems were too big to handle. When the psychiatrist diagnosed me, I was relieved to know what I had, but I was also terrified because I thought no one else was going through a similar situation like mine. With the support of family and friends in addition to involving myself in various summer activities, I was able to overcome my problems and learn how to cope with them in everyday life.

This experience opened my eyes to the world of mental health that affects so many more people than I expected, especially teenagers. I felt the desire to become a mental health advocate and support those struggling with their mental health. However, before doing so, I also wanted to learn more about different types of mental disorders and how they affect teenagers just like me.

While researching, I was surprised to find out that 1 in 5 children aged 13 to 18 have or will have a serious mental condition. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24. I suddenly didn’t feel so alone anymore, and was relieved that many other adolescents around the world were going through the same issues I was. The support I had from my therapist, friends, and family made a huge impact on my recovery. While I had some setbacks, I would not have made it without them. Unfortunately, some kids are embarrassed or feel uncomfortable reaching out to their parents or medical professionals, making it virtually impossible for them to recover without the support from people around them. Those who feel alone while struggling with a mental illness may resort to hurting themselves or even suicide. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 24. NAMI also states 90% of those who commit suicide had an underlying mental illness. The organization says the rate of suicide has increased since the late 1990s. From 1999 to 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased 24%, from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000 population, with the pace of increase greater after 2006.

Fortunately, society has come a long way when handling mental health in adolescents, but the conversation has yet to gain worldwide attention. According to Uganda’s Health Services Strategic Plan (HSSP), the main challenges in the country surrounding mental health are a lack of treatment, a weak referral system, skilled staff shortages, and low supplies at pharmacies. Women specifically face increased risk for mental disorders because of poverty, less education, abuse, forced marriages, sex trafficking, fewer job opportunities, and restriction in activities outside of their home. The stigma in Uganda can make women feel ashamed or as if they disrupted the wellbeing of their children and families.The National Center for Biotechnology Information says 46% of adolescents with mental disorders described experiencing stigmatization by family members in the form of unwanted assumptions, distrust, avoidance, pity and gossip. 62% experienced stigma from peers which often lead to friendship losses and social rejection while 35% experienced stigma from teachers and school staff, who expressed fear, dislike, avoidance, and underestimation of abilities.

While the conversation about mental health has grown, lack of knowledge surrounding it can lead to social stigmatization. Although information on mental health is easily accessible with the rise of the internet, there are many inaccuracies or biased opinions that can give people a mixed perception on mental disorders. The rise of social media has likely spread awareness for mental health, as some may document or blog about living with a mental disorder and companies can create campaigns to decrease the stigmatization around mental health. It is also imperative to understand that everyone may have a different experience with mental health and every individual has their own story surrounding it. Some may be quite open about their mental health, while others prefer to hide it from others. However, it is crucial that both individuals are taken seriously.

Almost six months after my panic attack, I am thriving as I never thought I would. Thinking back to that time in my life, I can see how terrifying it was to feel alone and powerless to stop my mental disorders. Now, I can safely say that I am living life without the fear of being shut out by others because of my mental disorders. To this day, I am still learning new coping skills and techniques to calm myself when I have a setback because recovery is less like an upward hill and more like a winding road with bumps few and far between. If I could give any advice to youth experiencing mental health issue, it would be to reach out to those you trust and get help because nobody should become another statistic.

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Not another statistic: combating the mental health stigma