News and Insights

Stigma and Social Barriers to Talking About Mental Health

June 18, 2024

As we begin to dive into America’s youth mental health landscape,  it is critical that we understand what causes are contributing to the multi-layered and complex current state we are in. We know a variety of internal and external causes, including the stigma and social barriers that make it difficult to even talk about personal mental health challenges influence mental health. At FINN Partners, we are proud to work with clients across multiple industries that focus on this issue and actively seek solutions to solve this epidemic and remove the barriers to openly addressing personal challenges. 

Mental health stigma is when someone has an unfair opinion or negative belief about mental health challenges. This is accompanied by feelings of shame, embarrassment, or guilt; fear of being seen as “mentally ill;” and fear of being seen as abnormal if one opens up about their mental health challenges. Stigma has been one of the biggest barriers to seeking help for a long time, but research shows us that may be changing.

The Jed Foundation (JED), a FINN client and a leading nonprofit that protects the emotional health of our nation’s teens and young adults and works to prevent suicide, this month issued a report, Unraveling the Stigma: Exploring Barriers to Mental Health Support Among U.S. Teens, investigating the barriers that teens face when considering seeking help. (The report was made possible by another FINN client, the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health.)

We asked Laura Erickson-Schroth, M.D., M.A., JED’s Chief Medical Officer, a few questions on the research:

Can you tell us about JED’s research on stigma and how it affects young people?

We conducted a study with a national sample of more than 1,500 teens ages 13 to 17 to investigate the extent to which stigma is a barrier in help-seeking for teens, what other barriers are present, and where youth are turning for support. Surprisingly, the study found that stigma isn’t the top barrier for teens seeking help and that they primarily turn to non-judgmental parents for emotional support. 

Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, M.D., M.A., Chief Medical Officer, The Jed Foundation

What did the research tell us about stigma and its relevance to teens and young adults?

We learned that stigma does not top the list of teens’ concerns. Instead, they are concerned that others might not understand them, feel discomfort surrounding emotional conversations, and fear that they could be a burden to others. 

This study led us to understand that there is a continuum of barriers preventing young people from seeking help. Stigma-related barriers include fear of (1) judgment from others, (2) disclosing information, and (3) damage to their reputation. These barriers could be related to stigma as well as other factors, such as protecting the image that teens want others to see, which is essential to this stage in life. Other barriers include social, structural, and situational barriers that stop teens from seeking help. These can include wanting to handle issues alone, not knowing where to get assistance, and lacking trust that the system will help them.

What is your key takeaway from the report?

My biggest takeaway is that teens want to reach out to adults in their lives, and our job is to create environments where it feels safe to do that. More than half (59%) of teens said that they would be very likely to reach out to an adult if a friend was having suicidal thoughts. The number is lower (43%) if the young person themselves is the one having those thoughts, so we still have work to do.

Teens in the study told us that they prefer that adults listen to their mental health concerns without judgment and keep conversations confidential whenever possible. To better support teens, adults can create more robust educational opportunities for them to learn about mental health; model help-seeking behaviors, demonstrating what it looks like to reach out for help; and provide more positive messages about mental health. Importantly,teen mental health is not just the responsibility of parents. All adults have a role to play.

Why is it important to do this research and get the word out about mental health and stigma?

We conducted this research to start a dialogue about what caring adults like parents and teachers, as well as peers, can do to better support teen help-seeking behaviors. More research will help to further identify barriers that prevent young people from seeking help. Data is important because it can inform and drive both policy and cultural change. Getting the results out through media will help us reach more people and boost the dialogue about what’s needed to support young people today.

How is JED working to address these challenges and more?

JED’s mission is to equip America’s teens and young adults with the skills and support they need to grow into healthy, thriving adults. Another recent JED report reveals a significant decline in suicidal thoughts, planning, and attempts among students attending colleges and universities that participated in the JED Campus program. This signature JED effort provides expert support, evidence-based best practices, and data-driven guidance to protect student mental health and prevent suicide at colleges and universities across the country. It’s encouraging to see that when young people receive the support and care they deserve, there is a positive impact.

Through the insights provided by Dr. Erickson-Scroth and JED, we can gain a deeper understanding of the barriers young people face so we can address them. Effective public relations and communications can be critical tools to breaking down barriers and building a more inclusive society for our youth. It is our responsibility as healthcare communications to help shape public perceptions of mental health, reduce stigma, challenge misconceptions and foster a more supportive environment. As we move forward, let us harness the power of PR to create a society that only discusses mental health challenges and those who face them are supported and accepted.

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, resources are available at or by dialing 3-1-1.

TAGS: Health, Education

POSTED BY: Laura O’Neill

Laura O’Neill