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Introduction to adolescent mental health
Introduction to adolescent mental health

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3.1 Identity, language and stigma

Having a mental health problem, and the language used to describe it, can have a profound impact on how a person sees themselves: their sense of identity. This point was reinforced by Ron Coleman:

In the early 1980s I was diagnosed as schizophrenic. By 1990, that was changed to chronic schizophrenic and in 1993 I gave up being a schizophrenic and decided to be Ron Coleman. Giving up being a schizophrenic is not an easy thing to do for it means taking back responsibility for yourself, it means you can no longer blame your illness for your actions. It means there is no disease to hide behind, no more running back to hospital every time things get a bit rough, but more important than any of these things it means that you stop being a victim of your experience and start being the owner of your experience.

(Cited by Laurance, 2003, p. 137)

Social perspectives used to understand mental health tend to be wary of attaching labels to people. To some extent, there is a view that everyone has at least some problems with their mental health at some point in their life. Under the social approach, factors such as poverty, unemployment, inequalities, oppression, divorce and living in a deprived area are seen to lead to ‘stress’ and ‘distress’, which are reactions to difficult circumstances rather than being illnesses (U’ren, 2011; Smail, 2005).

However you think about the characteristics of mental health problems, in cultures around the world it can be difficult to shake off the stigma that surrounds it.

A photograph of a young man chained to a poll.
Figure 9: Some people continue to be treated harshly for mental health issues.

The idea of stigma was first described by the American social psychologist Erving Goffman (1963), as the cause of a ‘spoiled identity’. Here Goffman is describing how individuals are often seen as different in some way, by virtue of how they look, act or behave and the impact that this can have upon how they feel and value themselves. Research exploring stigma includes careful analysis of groups of individuals who are excluded, rejected, blamed and devalued in some way (Scrambler, 2009).

In the next activity, you’ll watch a video of some young people talking about their experience of mental health stigma.

Activity 6: Stigma

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Watch the video of a group of young people talking about their mental health and when they first started experiencing difficulties during adolescence. How do the young people describe the stigma they have experienced? Stop and start the video as much as you like.

Write down a list of bullet points which reflect the stigmatising experiences these young people describe. You can write these as a list of words or phrases.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 2: Mental health in our own words
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Video 2: Mental health in our own words
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Your notes might have gone something like this, although there are several ways you might have interpreted these brief accounts.

  • Feeling alone.

  • Feeling like people don’t really understand you.

  • Feeling isolated.

  • Wanting to be treated as a ‘normal’ person.

  • People not realising you are ill or that you are unwell.

  • People expecting you to look and act in certain ways because of your mental health.

  • Being called names like ‘schitzo’.

Name calling, feeling alone, singled out and devalued in some way are just some of the ways in which these young people talk about their experiences of being viewed as different and the stigma related to their mental health difficulties.

Social scientists spend a lot of time interpreting accounts of people’s experiences. Gathering a range of personal experiences can help to build and test theories. Here, you have been applying theory – a definition of stigma – to some real-life accounts.