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GGS Girl Gone Powerful Showcase: Letter to US Secretary of Education from Bailey, age 16

I'm so happy to introduce you to Bailey. When I started GGS, there were a few young women I had a in mind for this area and she is one of them. All words are her own and I've only edited for spacing - I've touched nothing else. I'm impressed, humbled, and perhaps a bit excited for the future knowing this young woman will be in charge soon. Thank you, Bailey. I hope to read so much more from you!

Mrs. Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education

400 Maryland Ave, SW

Washington, D.C. 20202

Dear Mrs. DeVos:

I am writing with the intent to inform you about a very serious issue that is present within a growing number of schools across America. There is a dire need for better mental health support systems in schools to aid students who are suffering from mental illnesses (as well as the accompanying stigma) which may hinder their abilities to perform well academically.

Schools should provide adequate mental health resources for all students so that they may thrive in both their academic and personal lives. Additionally, schools should work to raise awareness in staff and students about mental health in order to erase the stigma. This is a much larger problem than some people may believe. However, change can start with something as simple as educating a community as well as hiring staff personnel, such as school psychologists, who are trained to undertake such a task.

To put the issue into perspective, Chris Brownson, advocate for mental health and licensed psychologist, examines the statistics reflecting mental illness in America:

“Approximately 26 percent of adults and 20 percent of children experience diagnosable mental health conditions each year... The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that fewer than 1/3 of adults and half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year.”

It is clear that the majority of those diagnosed with mental illnesses are not receiving sufficient treatment. It can be difficult to keep up with the expenses for medication, a psychologist, and/or a psychiatrist. However, schools can do their part by hiring psychologists who are capable of providing advice and coping strategies to struggling students.

Stigma is another part of the puzzle - one of the reasons mentally ill students have difficulty in a school environment. Stigma is, by definition, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” In short, stigma is a form of discrimination. Brit Lizabeth Lippman, a student of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, suggests that stigma can be further separated into a dichotomy of public stigma versus self-stigma. In the context of mental illness, she writes,

“Public stigma is one’s perception of others’ reactions to his or her illness. Meanwhile, self-stigma involves the internalization of public stigma typically marked by feelings of shame, embarrassment, and low self-esteem directed toward oneself (Corrigan, 2004). Despite this differentiation, it is best to conceptualize the two constructs together since they are so closely related—public stigma instills self-stigma.”

Both types of stigma are damaging. However, self-stigma would not exist in such a measure if not for public stigma. Feelings caused by public stigma are internalized and make it more difficult for the individual to seek support for fear of criticism from others - i.e.. more public stigma. Theoretically, eradication of public stigma would lead to eradication (at least, in part) of self-stigma. This may lead some to wonder - where does this stigma come from?

The media undoubtedly plays a significant part in giving individuals with mental illnesses a bad reputation by planting a certain image in the minds of consumers. According to Kirstin Fawcett, a contributor to the health section of usnews.com,

“...the bulk of your knowledge about mental illness comes from the newspapers you read, the television shows you watch and the movies you see. Studies indicate that mass media is one of the public’s primary sources of information about disorders such as bipolar, schizophrenia and depression.”

As the general public’s most prominent source for information, the media has a significant influence on our perception of many things - including mental health. However, a lot (if not most) of the “information” about mental health put out by the media is stereotypical, harmful, and ignorant. This causes members of the public to generate a negative image of those with mental illnesses.

This stigmatization and ostracization of mentally ill individuals has alarming repercussions, especially on mentally ill youth. Citing a Moses 2008 study Lippman articulates these effects in detail: “Not only does stigmatization from family and peers negatively affect an adolescent’s psyche, but it can lead adolescents to actually define themselves by their illnesses, a phenomenon known as self-labeling... it is important to note that self-labeling positively correlates with self-stigma, depression, and a lower sense of mastery... self-labelers seem to have an overall poorer self-image, with a greater susceptibility to depression.

Moses (2008) found that adolescents who self-label ‘refer to their illness as an organic part of themselves,’ merging their own identity with that of their psychiatric disorder... individuals who cannot separate who they are from their diagnoses might experience poorer psychological well-being that likely seeps into their academic performance, as well as other dimensions of their daily lives.” She continues, A study of stigma among adolescents...discovered...that 90% of participants demonstrated at least one of three measured stigma themes: secrecy, shame, and limiting social interaction (Kranke, Floersch, Townsend, & Munson, 2010).

Many of these adolescents endorsed feeling some stigma from their friends or peers (Moses, 2010). Others expressed fear of being bullied by peers in school environments, consequently leading to secrecy, shame, and social withdrawal (Kranke et al., 2010). Untreated mental illnesses will affect every facet of an individual’s life. For adolescents, this means strained relationships with friends and family, poor academic performance, and a greater chance of developing other mental illnesses, such as depression. These are a select few of the burdens that mentally ill students are forced to carry.

It is imperative that something be done to change the state of mental health as it is seen in the school system. To begin with, staff and students should be educated on mental illness in an effort to normalize it. Although health classes may gloss over some symptoms of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, there is little attempt to understand, much less to empathize. Additionally, struggling adolescents will surely benefit from a strong support system. Lippman illustrates this idea by stating, “The negative effects of stigma are best avoided by contact with supportive family and peer groups who either suffer from the same condition or can empathize with the affected adolescent. Kranke et al. (2010) found that adolescents who did not endorse any stigma themes had such a support system, and thus were able to normalize their illness so that they ‘no longer felt that anything was wrong with them’ (p. 504)… having family members who also struggle with some form of mental illness can actually serve as a positive factor for adolescents, since parents and relatives who empathize may be less likely to exclude their children or act condescendingly toward them (Moses, 2010).”

Essentially, the effects of stigma can be lessened if a student is in a supportive and understanding environment and will contribute to feelings of belonging and kinship. This is best demonstrated in this study by families, but hopefully this can be extended to the classroom, where students spend an average of 6 hours per weekday.

It seems that this is a grave issue with an obvious solution - a greater push not only for improved in-school support systems, but awareness about mental illness and mental health, both for staff and students. I implore you to consider the lives and wellbeing of those students who are struggling.



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