Student Group Says Mental Health Stigmas Complicate Care In Kentucky

Sep 12, 2018

New research from a local student-led mental health group paints a complicated picture of mental health perceptions of Kentucky students.

Allison Tu, a senior at duPont Manual High School and executive director of the Student Alliance for Mental Health Innovation and Action (StAMINA), said the organization conducted statewide focus groups of 59 students and 32 parents for the last year on mental health issues. The findings are important as mental health funding in schools has been slashed by 15.8 percent per student since 2008 in Kentucky, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 34-year-olds in Kentucky, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Tu said that stigma — a mark of disgrace that’s usually associated with a particular circumstance, in this case, mental health — can keep teens from seeking help for issues like depression, anxiety and other types of mental health issues. That stigma can come from misinformation via friends and family, a fear of burdening family or community heritage that shames mental illness or makes it taboo.

“Students would say, ‘you don’t get educated on mental illness,’ so when students have no formal mental health education, it’s hard to expect them to be able to develop positive attitudes toward mental health,” Tu said. “I have to say, what’s on social media tends to be very negative.”

Manual High School junior Beatrice Roussell said mental health and wellness needs to be taught in schools.

“If we add mental health education to general education, so everyone is as familiar with it as they are with the quadratic formula, I think students will be able to quickly identify symptoms and know where to seek help and that will contribute to them getting help quicker,” Roussell said.

Speakers pointed to legislation recently passed in Virginia and New York mandating mental health education be taught in schools. Tu said similar legislation is possible in Kentucky. Last year, the group advocated for House Bill 604, which would have required school districts to employ least one mental health professional for every 1,500 students. The measure passed out of the House but stalled after.

Stephen O’Connor, assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and a StAMINA advisory board member, said more can be done to help parents support teens who may have face mental health struggles. He said many parents reported the same stigma around mental health as their children.

“When you asked them a question, ‘What’s the first thing that you hear when you hear the term mental health?’ people would say ‘crazy, mental sickness, or mental ill health,’” O’Connor said. “After they said something like this, there was a desire to reign it back in, and a collective laughing and a, ‘oh my gosh, what’s wrong with us?’”

He said part of that is likely driven by attitudes of other parents and people in the community.

“Parents in rural communities especially they felt like once their child was identified as having some mental health challenges, they were targeted and bullied not just by their peers, but by some of the teachers themselves,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor said this can be especially detrimental to a student because parents are often the party who will aid in getting their children help.

“They get to help the student understand what their experience is about, and will help decide if the student will connect with a mental health provider,” O’Connor said.

Other things to know:

30 percent of high schoolers reported feeling sad or hopeless to the point of stopping some usual activities between 2015 and 2017 in Kentucky.

57 percent of Kentuckians between 12 and 17-years-old with a major depressive disorder did not receive mental health care between 2011 and 2015, according to the federal government.

StAMINA found religion played a positive role for some teens in getting help with mental struggles. But some students reported that they were told to ‘pray more’ and their struggles were not taken seriously.

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