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Stigma Associated with Mental Illness Deters Youth and Families from Seeking Treatment
Author: Angela D. Abel, Office of University Communications, 503-725-8794
Posted: September 28, 2006

Two new survey finds that youth ages 8–18, have an easier time understanding a physical illness rather than a mental illness, affecting how they perceive and treat peers, and how youth and their families seek treatment.

Approximately one in ten American children and youth experience a behavioral, emotional or mental health disorder that could be identified and treated. The Regional Research Institute at Portland State University’s Graduate School of Social Work collaborated with the polling firm, Harris Interactive, to produce two surveys that illustrate how stigma associated with mental illness can dissuade young people and their families from seeking help (results listed below).

“This is the first large-scale study to examine youth perceptions about mental illness among their peers,” said Janet Walker, from PSU’s Regional Research Institute. “At one level, it’s useful just to have this descriptive data, and to see how young people’s perceptions and attitudes develop and change across the age groups. But even more importantly, the findings will be useful in designing applied efforts to reduce stigma and to increase the extent to which appropriate and acceptable mental health care is available for youth who need it.”

Youth’s perception of mental illness
Over 1,300 youth (ages 8-18) nationwide were asked questions in relation to a fictional character, with one of three conditions: depression, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or asthma. Based on responses surrounding these scenarios, results show that youth expect that a child with depression or ADHD is more likely than a classmate with asthma to be socially shunned. More youth indicated that peers with depression would be made fun of by most students when they are not around than with ADHD or asthma. Fewer youth say that students at their school would invite a person with depression to parties or outings than with ADHD or asthma, and fewer would expect other students to sit with them to eat lunch.

Findings from the surveys provide insights into how youth perceive and treat peers with depression and ADHD, how much they know about the causes and symptoms of these mental health disorders and how the level of stigma associated with mental health disorders compares with the stigma associated with physical illness. The findings also provide information on youths’ perceptions of the treatability of mental health disorders and the dangerousness of peers who have a disorder.

Stigma and treatment of mental illness
Youth on the surveys indicated that if they thought they had depression, they would most likely talk to a friend, talk to their parents and pray. Many also would try harder to think and act like normal or wait for it to go away. Youth appear to have a better sense of what steps they might take if they thought they had asthma, responding that they would most likely talk to a doctor, talk to their parents or take medication.

Interestingly, about one in four youth reported thinking they have had depression, but only seven percent said that a doctor or psychologist has diagnosed them with depression. Fifteen percent of respondents said people in their family think that if you have depression you should not tell anyone outside the family, compared to only three percent for asthma.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 50 million Americans experience a mental disorder in any given year and only one-fourth of them actually receive mental health and other services.

For more information on the study please visit One of the lead researchers, Janet Walker, from the Regional Research Institute at Portland State University, will be available to comment on the study’s findings, on planned future analyses of the data and can aid media representatives in setting up interviews with local youth who have experienced mental health difficulties and with their parents or other caregivers.

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Source: Janet Walker (503-725-8236)
Regional Research Institute, Portland State University