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Stigma and youth mental health: The importance of social context


Hennessy, Eilis;

Subject Keywords: Mental health; Stigma; Adolescence; Young people;
Topic: Mental Health
Catalogue: Research and Evaluation
Type: Report
Region: Republic of Ireland

The term stigma has been
widely used in the social sciences since the 1960s, however until recently it
has rarely been applied in the context of youth mental health. This paper, which addresses the stigma of youth mental health, has two main aims. The first is to explain what is meant by stigma and to give examples of stigma drawn from interviews with
young people with mental health problems. 
The second aim is to explore what is known about the development of stigma
and to argue that researchers interested in the topic could learn much from theoretical
approaches to the study of the development of intergroup relationships and
prejudice.  What
is stigma? The term is complex but is usually considered to encompass three
different components: stereotypes (e.g. young people with mental health problems are
disruptive), prejudices (e.g. I would not like to be friends with someone with depression) and discrimination (e.g. I would not invite someone
with schizophrenia to a party). The paper will begin by presenting young
people's personal experiences of these components of stigma and will argue that
social exclusion is a serious problem, as young people need to be part a
network of peers in order to develop social skills and confidence.  Research also suggests that young people who stigmatize may themselves suffer, as they may be less willing to seek help if they develop mental health problems. The
paper will then consider research on the development of stigmatizing attitudes by
drawing on the findings of a series of studies with young
people (from middle childhood through adolescence) that have explored negative
attitudes towards peers with mental health problems.  Evidence from these studies suggests how young people react
depends on their age, their gender and on the type of mental health problem
they encounter in their peers. For example, research suggests that older
teenagers are more accepting of behaviour associated with ADHD, whereas they
are less accepting of males with symptoms of depression.  The
findings of studies like this will be used to argue that developmental
inter-group theory, originally proposed to explain the development of prejudice
in childhood, has potential as a framework for understanding how mental health
stigma develops.  The theory
proposes that stigma begins to develop early in life as people are identified
as different, through their behaviour their looks or the way they are
treated.  Once children learn to categorize their peers, they are then susceptible to messages that peers who are different (such as those with mental health problems) have negative characteristics e.g. they are untrustworthy. The
value of a unifying theoretical approach is that it can highlight gaps in
existing knowledge about the development of stigma, it can point to important
topics for future research and it can provide a rationale for the design and
implementation of anti-stigma programmes.  Such efforts to reduce stigma have the potential to accrue long-term benefits by improving the quality of life of all young people.

Suggested citation:

Hennessy, Eilis; . () Stigma and youth mental health: The importance of social context [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 17th October 2019].


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