Facing the Stigma of Mental Disorders One Teenager at a Time
More than any previous group of American youth, Chandra Watts and her peers grew up hearing about ADHD, bipolar, and Prozac.
As a generation, they were more psychologically attuned — and diagnosed — than any other. Mental disorders, they were told, should be viewed no differently from physical illnesses, and cause no shame.
So when Watts was 15 and hospitalized in the midst of severe mood swings, she thought she could safely confide in a good friend. But that friend ended up telling someone else, who told someone else, and then word got out. Watts was devastated.
“I became known as the School Crazy,” said Watts, now 25 and attending community college in Worcester.
Chandra Watts is part of a program called Strategic Sharing, which helps young people who have struggled with mental health issues talk about their past in selective ways.
Seasoned by that experience, but undaunted, Watts is among a growing number of young people wrestling with a political and personal dilemma: They want to lead efforts to curb long-held prejudices against people with mental illness, but must carefully consider what they say publicly to protect their image as they enter the adult world. They also face challenges not confronted by previous generations: The Internet and social networking sites can turn casual remarks into permanent records, easily searched by college admissions officers and potential employers.
‘The majority of people are judgmental.’
Several national efforts are underway to help young people with this problem. YouthMOVE Massachusetts, part of a national group focused on youth mental health issues, is sponsoring a program next month called Strategic Sharing, in which Watts and others will learn when and how to filter what they say, depending on the situation. This program, created by Casey Family Programs, counsels young people with mental illness how to promote awareness of psychiatric issues but not share too much that might hurt them on the job or in new relationships.
A program called LETS (Let’s Erase The Stigma), launched two years ago in Southern California, has drawn several thousand teenagers to form school chapters to increase understanding and acceptance of mental illness, said Phil Fontilea, the founder and a former business executive with his own history of depression