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The Impact of Stigma on Mental Health Treatment for Children

Adults with mental health conditions typically receive treatment approximately 8-10 years after symptoms have begun (Sarper Taskiran, MD). Studies show that 1 in 5 children are diagnosed with a serious mental health condition during their adolescence (5 Ways to End Mental Health Stigma, 2020). Imagine breaking your ankle as a kid and waiting to receive treatment for a decade. Imagine not going to see a doctor for treatment right away. Imagine feeling pain every day instead of taking a pain reliever to help ease your pain. Think about how it would feel to internalize that pain and walk through those ten years pretending the injury and the pain does not exist. What if we placed the same importance on mental health and mental health conditions as we did physical health and physical health conditions? If society could learn to integrate physical and mental health, the stigma of receiving mental health services would not exist.

Depressed girl talking to psychologist during therapy session

One of the largest, longest, and detrimental stigmas that have and still affect Americans today is the stigma associated with mental health. Due to nationwide misinformation and a lack of understanding, mental health has been viewed negatively for decades. The stigma associated with mental health has caused individuals and families shame, guilt, and suffering as they go untreated. Most suicides are caused by untreated mental health conditions. Half of the teenage-aged students who drop out of high school have mental illnesses. Additionally, less than 47% of adults with mental health conditions receive treatment (Mental Illness, 2021). About half of the U.S adolescent population with mental health conditions are not receiving mental health treatment (Whitney & Peterson, 2019).

The reduction of mental health stigma has seen improvement over the last decade due to the credible research and studies concluded by mental health professionals. Unfortunately, the views on mental health have existed for so long, that they have created long-lasting effects. Much of the population grew up learning these stigmas as reality and adapted their behaviors to that reality. One of those behaviors includes hiding their mental health concerns or conditions, which results in not receiving treatment. Furthermore, when someone tries to alter that reality, it could be difficult and met with resistance. Change is hard but changing an individual’s mind or mindset is even more challenging. Stigma reduction is difficult for that reason.

Additionally, individuals and families may not have access to important information regarding mental health – especially those who live in rural areas and those with limited resources. Not only do individuals and families in these areas lack access to information, but they also lack access to resources including mental health and financial resources. Without access to these resources, stigma reduction is harder to achieve.

The purpose of reducing the stigma is to get individuals and families the help they need, and it begins with early intervention. Children with varying severities of mental health conditions are not receiving the treatment they need due to the stigma associated with mental health. Mental health treatment includes therapy, counseling, psychiatric care/psychotherapy, psychiatric medication, and sometimes hospitalization. One or more of these treatments help individuals with a mental health condition manage their symptoms and condition(s). Treatment allows individuals to live a fulfilled and productive life.

The biggest stigma associated with mental health treatment during adolescence is medication usage in children. Most parents worry that medication used to treat mental health conditions affects a child’s development and causes a reduction in their expression of emotions. Additionally, parents believe children are overmedicated for simple behavioral problems (Pescosolido et al., 2007). Psychiatric medication is often viewed as a quick fix or the “easiest option.” These stigmas are not true.

The research and studies completed by scientists and mental health professionals help to inform physicians on safe medication usage and dosage. It also aids in creating supported federal guidelines on the medication. Research may also conclude simply that more research is needed, which is equally valuable. If the psychiatric medication were to affect a child’s development or cause mood side effects, it would be noted in that research. It is important when parents are considering medications to ask their pediatrician what the medication is treating, the most common side effects, and any essential information regarding the prescribed medication.

Medication is not the solution to every problem, and it is sometimes not the best option. Furthermore, medication is one part of the equation. Typically, medication is used in conjunction with other mental health treatment options such as therapy. Similar to a sprained ankle, a doctor provides medication to reduce swelling and relieve pain, and that alone may not be enough to heal the ankle; an individual may need occupational or physical therapy to help strengthen the body. The same can be said for the mind and mental wellness therapy. Therapy or psychotherapy may be needed in addition to medication to help strengthen or heal the mind.

As easy as it is to create a stigma, it is just as easy to dispel. It is important to have positive conversations about mental health with children. It will help reduce the stigma associated with mental health and allow children to be open about any concerns they have about their mental health. Parents and other adults cannot read a child’s mind but they can help them feel more comfortable with sharing how they feel. Help children receive the care and support they need by educating yourself and those around you. It takes everyone to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health because mental health affects everyone at every age.

To contact the Missouri Mental Health Foundation, email, call (573) 635-9201, or visit for more information.


“5 Ways to End Mental Health Stigma – Children’s Health.”, 2020,

“Mental Illness.” National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 2021, . Accessed 14 June 2022.

Pescosolido, Bernice A., et al. “Stigmatizing Attitudes and Beliefs about Treatment and Psychiatric Medications for Children with Mental Illness.” Psychiatric Services, vol. 58, no. 5, May 2007, pp. 613–618, 10.1176/ps.2007.58.5.613. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.

Sarper Taskiran, M.D. “Stigma Interferes with Mental Health Treatment for Kids.” US News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 24 July 2018, Accessed 12 June 2022.

Whitney, Daniel G., and Mark D. Peterson. “US National and State-Level Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders and Disparities of Mental Health Care Use in Children.” JAMA Pediatrics, vol. 173, no. 4, 1 Apr. 2019, p. 389, 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5399.

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