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Being treated differently: stigma experiences with family, peers, and school staff among adolescents with mental health disorders

Tally Moses
Social Science & Medicine 2010, 70 (7): 985-93
20122768
Stigma directed at adolescents diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders by individuals in their interpersonal network likely undermines their wellbeing, yet little is known about their subjective stigma experiences. In particular, the prospect of diagnosed youth experiencing prejudice and discrimination by family members has not previously been examined. This study examines adolescents' perceptions of being treated 'differently' because of mental health problems by family members, peers, and school staff. Qualitative analysis of narratives from mixed method interviews with 56 adolescents in a mid-western US city demonstrated variation in the perceived extent and nature of stigma and in contextual factors perceived as promoting or protecting from stigmatization, depending on the interpersonal domain. The greatest number of participants experienced stigmatization in relationships with peers (62%); this often led to friendship losses and transitions. Participants reporting no peer stigmatization often reported socializing with others "in the same boat" or concealing problems--methods of avoiding potentially stigmatizing interactions. Close to half (46%) described experiencing stigmatization by family members, which often took the form of unwarranted assumptions, distrust, avoidance, pity, and gossip. About one third (35%) of participants reported stigma perpetrated by school staff, who expressed fear, dislike, avoidance, and under-estimation of their abilities. Fortunately, 22% reported "different" treatment by school staff, but this treatment was interpreted as positive and supportive. Results showed that perceived stigmatization in one domain was associated with perceived stigma in other domains. The results suggest that efforts to combat stigmatization of youth with mental health disorders must help family members, peers, and school staff overcome their inclinations to make negative assumptions and discriminate against these youth.

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