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  1. Youth Topics
  2. Mental Health
  3. The Role of Attitudes and Discrimination

The Role of Attitudes and Discrimination

Discrimination against youth with mental health challenges begins early and increases over time, causing attitudes to become ingrained.1 Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that people with mental illnesses are not to blame for their conditions (84 percent), only about 57.3 percent believe that people are generally caring and sympathetic toward individuals with mental illnesses.2 This percentage is much lower (24.6 percent) for those who themselves suffer poor mental health.3

Attitudes of Young People

Discrimination and misconceptions about people with mental illnesses is prevalent for youth and young adults.4 Findings from the 2006 HealthStyles Survey suggest that, for young adults between the ages of 18 and 24,

  • about 24 percent believe that a person with a mental illness is dangerous and 38.9 percent believe he or she is unpredictable;
  • less than half (44.3 percent) believe that someone with a mental illness can be successful at work;
  • only slightly more than half (55.2 percent) believe that treatment can help people with mental illnesses lead normal lives; and
  • only around 26.9 percent believe that a person with mental illness can eventually recover.

Discrimination as a Barrier to Recovery

Discrimination associated with mental illness poses a large barrier to recovery and is one of the main reasons why people don’t seek help and treatment.5 Further, an unwillingness to seek help because of the negative attitudes attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts has been found to be one of the risk factors associated with suicide.6

What can be Done to Limit Discrimination?

Youth are a key population on which to focus discrimination reduction efforts, as they are more likely than the general public to know someone with a mental illness, and therefore have a unique opportunity to make a difference.7 The National Annenberg Survey of Youth conducted a large scale study on these negative attitudes and found that youth who were informed with facts and able to dispel myths about individuals with mental health disorders were less likely to discriminate against them. They concluded that various approaches have promise in decreasing negative attitudes and discrimination, such as the use of mass media to influence the attitudes of youth and educating students by incorporating persons with mental health disorders as speakers in classroom presentations and discussions.8

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has launched an anti-discrimination campaign called What a Difference a Friend Makes. The premise of the campaign is that recovery from mental illness is more likely in a society that is accepting, and that provides education and support from friends. Through acceptance and social inclusion, individuals who have behavioral health challenges or mental illness can be contributing members of their families and communities.

SAMHSA suggests everyone can do something to help a person with mental illness by

  • avoiding the use of negative labels;
  • showing kindness and respect; and
  • helping to eliminate discrimination in housing, employment, or education.9

In addition, understanding and accepting friends play an important role in recovery.

  • Friends can help by offering reassurance, companionship, and emotional strength.
  • Friends can express an interest and concern for people with a mental illness by asking questions, listening to ideas, and being responsive.
  • Friends can help encourage others to treat mental illness like any other healthcare condition.
  • Friends can dismiss any preconceived notions about mental illness and embrace a more helpful way of relating to people.10


What a Difference a Friend Makes
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration launched the Mental Health Campaign for Mental Health Recovery to encourage, educate, and inspire people between 18 and 25 to support their friends who are experiencing mental health problems. The site provides information to dispel myths about mental health problems, shares stories of youth and young adults who have struggled with mental health problems, and provides resources to encourage youth and young adults to support others with mental health problems.

Youth Mobile Response Services: An Investment to Decriminalize Mental Health (PDF, 23 pages)
This report from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) evaluates the role of law enforcement and mental health systems in the United States and their relationships to racial justice.


1 Wahl, 2002
2 SAMHSA, 2006; CDC, 2007
3 CDC, 2007
4 SAMHSA, 2006; CDC, 2007
5 SAMHSA, 2006
6 CDC, 2010
7 SAMHSA, 2006 
8 Romer, 2003
9 SAMHSA, 2006 p. 3
10 SAMHSA, 2006 p. 3

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