A Power We Hold: The Pandemic’s Impact on Mental Health Stigmatization & Social Injustice on Youth

Nearly 90,000 people believe the stigma against having a mental disorder was one of the prime reasonings for refusing to seek help.

By Lea Yeo, Georgetown University*

The stigma against mental health illnesses is an ongoing issue that many people experience, strive to reduce, and or attempt to fight against in our society. Diagnoses such as generalized anxiety or major depressive disorder are a few that have become increasingly common among the current generation, especially through my own experiences as a young adult in America. However, with the pandemic striking the world in 2020, it seems the impact it carried upon mental health disorders and its stigma has taken a more negative toll than positive. From personal experience, after recently being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and depersonalization during the pandemic, I found myself embarrassingly hiding these aspects more than openly expressing them. After returning to our normal lives after repetitive timelines of quarantine, I found myself, my peers, and even adults struggling more than ever to keep their mental stability afloat. The coronavirus has “shut people off from seeking and receiving help” for their mental difficulties and thus created this injustice centered around this stigma (Beckjord, 2022).  The significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon the stigmatization of mental health in our world has drastically increased, ultimately affecting major social injustices our youth must face head-on. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults in America lived with mental illnesses in 2020 (2022). Within a worldwide lens, nearly 90,000 people believe the stigma against having a mental disorder was one of the prime reasonings for refusing to seek help (Krans, 2018). This generalized background information displays an outlook into basic statistics of how frequently these issues affect individuals not only in our nation but also around the globe. The American Psychiatric Association distinguishes these stigmatic issues by stemming from three different types. Public stigma studies show that people with mental illnesses are societally deemed as holding less value than those without these illnesses (2020). Self-stigma studies display more than 200 individuals who have experienced long-term mental disorders “found greater self-stigma was associated with poorer recovery” (2020). Lastly, institutionalized stigma from a 2019 poll states “more than one in three were concerned about retaliation or being fired if they sought mental health care” while currently being employed by a workplace (2020). This traces back to the conclusion that discrimination against those with mental health challenges has led to a lack of accessibility, resources, and outreach to seek out help. It seems fair to say that it has created an unjust disparity among our society that has failed to reinforce the strength of overcoming stigma and prioritizing one’s health.

Generation Z, or the growing teenage population since the pandemic, is known to be the most depressed generation up to date (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021). The pandemic has affected current events such as school shootings, closings, and student debt over the last few years, and it seems mental health problems have rocketed up with cases. Coping with isolation and resorting to virtual communication in order to engage in socialization, “can evoke intense feel­ings of iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness in some youth” (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021). Studies have provided evidence that these given emotions can result in psychiatric disorders, depression, and/or personality disorders (Cohut, 2018). When these emotions become too strong in such a way that they are pushed away or indulged too deeply, it is frequently recommended to seek knowledge of coping mechanisms or healthy therapy alternatives. On the other hand, with this consistent growth of stigmatization of such actions, people may feel invalidated and refuse or fail to find an escape.

The sudden change from physical to virtual environments within a short span of time has also heavily interfered with many lives – arguably primarily among adolescents. Especially with the growth of social media and its influence on self-perception and self-worth, it is rare to find one experiencing little to no influence from these platforms. As stated by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide,” but these numbers have merely increased with the pandemic (2021). However, “the pandemic added to the pre-existing challenges that America’s youth faced” and uncovered the entrance towards a newfound national “youth mental health crisis” (Murthy, 2021). This emphasizes the limitations behind seeking contact with medical professionals on a virtual basis and their treatment effectiveness when people are consistently living miserably.

Studies have shown that people of color within marginalized communities have a higher chance of stronger stigmatization for mental illnesses – the coronavirus situation simply stresses this more.

Even with the already lacking mental health support access issue, studies have shown that people of color within marginalized communities have a higher chance of stronger stigmatization for mental illnesses – the coronavirus situation simply stresses this more (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021). This disparity tends to be rooted within ethnic or cultural differences that often result in neglecting one’s feelings, decreasing the possibility of obtaining mental health services as well. With the rise of mental disorder diagnoses, social interactions of people growing up in our society are also guaranteed to become affected by the difficulty of adjusting back to in-person environments. Looking to peace psychology, satisfying the need to belong and benefiting from social relationships is incredibly significant for a better, healthy mentality (Wood, 2015). Hence, it is crucial to understand and address this form of the injustice of the stigma of mental health resources held against minorities in America. Questions along the lines of how to promote mental health awareness and how to guide these populations toward more accessibility equity must be asked. It is imperative to first directly observe, analyze, and comprehend these conditions that the pandemic has caused.

The topic regarding the ideals of democracy of “maximizing citizens’ well-being, minimizing violence, and promoting human rights” is a large belief going against social Darwinism views (ScienceDaily, 2021). Therefore, more political policies and aid should be offered and highlighted when understanding civilians’ needs. One of the more recent global advocacy campaigns directed toward increasing the knowledge behind mental health was conducted in 2001 (The Mental Health Innovation Network, 2001). With nearly more than two decades since this date, a stronger call to action is necessary to help mentally struggling citizens. When contemplating the aspects of human nature, a particular question struck me when discussing societal change: How can we reform institutions with external influences on violence? The majority would likely respond similarly along the lines of how it would be nearly impossible to reconstruct an entire society and is not within logical reason. However, through small steps, solutions could generate positive ripples in society.

“Mental health is of intrinsic value as is physical health” and gathering statistical data on communities in need of such support can allow the local, state, and federal governments to adopt new mental health policies.

“Mental health is of intrinsic value as is physical health” and gathering statistical data on communities in need of such support can allow the local, state, and federal governments to adopt new mental health policies (Jenkins, 2003). Living with a mental disorder or illness can often become a heavy burden and is proven to “contribute to poverty [as it]… differentially affects the poor” and others who come from disadvantaged backgrounds in America (Jenkins, 2003). A solution to shed more light on mental health awareness is implementing an educational curriculum through gradual intervals. A school in Australia has begun an approach to address mental health by devoting resources and time equivalent to physical health education and alleviating stigma by encouraging more open-ended discussions within classrooms (Open Access Government, 2022). Recently in America, bills such as the Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2020 and Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being Act of 2022 have both passed the House of Representatives, and the general public awaits results from the Senate (Congress.gov, 2020 & 2022). To achieve social justice and peace, such public policies, effective reeducation, and advocacy on the awareness of the stigmatization of mental health must be majorly reconsidered, reevaluated, and put into motion. A call to action to bring out the voices of those who are silenced in our society is a power we all hold.

About the Author

*Lea Yeo is a freshman at Georgetown University intending to double major in Psychology and Justice & Peace Studies with a minor in Government. She intends on studying criminal profiling based on peacebuilding skills while advocating for social injustices in the future.

Works Cited

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