Confronting the Stigma of Mental Illness


This project is a requirement of the GOA Abnormal Psychology Course. Using the process of design thinking, a challenge in the world of mental health was identified, interviews and research were undertaken, and a solution prototype was developed. Below you will find information about the identified area of concern and my proposed solution. Please feel free to provide feedback on this prototype, using questions such as “How might we…”, “What if….?”, “I wonder….”, “I like…”, and “I wish.” Keep the comments positive, please. For more information on the process of Design Thinking, click here.

Hi! My name is Haley Pietro and I am a senior at Sacred Heart Preparatory. The following project is an exploration of the stigma surrounding mental illness in my own community. Throughout the course Abnormal Psychology, we have engaged in meaningful and insightful conversations that examine the existence of stigma in regards to mental illness and mental health. I not only found these conversations fascinating, but also felt that they were extremely relevant to many of the experiences that I witness and encounter in my own community. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley, I have begun to recognize that the individuals in this area are driven, determined, and committed to achieving their goals. While many of these characteristics are honorable, I also began to notice the structured and fast paced manner in which most people live their lives. High expectations and pressure to succeed have created a culture that has a difficult time embracing struggle, failure, obstacles, and mistakes. People struggle to accept the reality that it is okay to not be okay. For this reason, I wanted to address the existence of stigma surrounding mental health in my own community in an attempt to shed light on the reality that mental illness is not a symbol of weakness or failure.



What is stigma?

stigma (n) – a mark of disgrace associated with a particular, circumstance, quality, or person 

While this definition of stigma may seem distant or vague, it captures the inherent attitude and feelings that many people have towards the topic of mental health. Throughout this semester of Abnormal Psychology, I have begun to recognize the stigma that exists in my own community. As a result, many students who struggle with mental illness experience feelings of shame and embarrassment. Although some students in my community are willing to seek help, the majority of my peers feel the need to put on a mask. The stigma of mental illness is a reflection of the reality that students feel their emotions and struggles are invalid. Instead of seeking help and searching for healthy ways to overcome these challenges, students try to cover up their challenges and emotions. Not to mention, students ignore the reality that our thoughts directly impact our feelings and behavior.

The following resource provides a brief description of the stigma surrounding mental illness and outlines some of the challenges people face due to stigma:

Imagine There Was No Stigma to Mental Illness 

The following video is a talk that was given at a TED Conference by psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman. He not only talks about the stigma to mental illness, but also allows the audience to gain a deeper understanding of the topic by providing examples, explanations, and factors that contribute to the rise of stigma.

Interview with Hillary Sinnott

Hillary Sinnott is therapist who specializes in a variety of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has worked at several public high schools in the Bay Area and provides an additional perspective regarding the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness.

Haley: Throughout our course we have spent time studying the biopsychosocial model which attributes disease outcome to the interaction of biological factors, psychological factors, and social factors. Do you feel that some of these factors have more of an influence on the outcome of mental health than others?

Hillary: While there are definitely biological components that trickle down from within the family, a student’s environment is a huge factor that impacts his or her mental health. For example, in a community like East Palo Alto students are exposed to gang violence and gunshots and trauma while students in Atherton are exposed to very different conditions and challenges. There is a lot of pressure within wealthy communities. Some parents in Atherton even view anxiety as a healthy way to spark productivity. Different communities view and respond to mental health and behavior in such different ways and this inevitably impacts students.

Haley: What are some of the common challenges that you see teenagers facing within this community?

Hillary: Students receive a lot of pressure from parents as well as their school environment. Overall, there isn’t very much free time given to teenagers to explore their true passions, learn to problem solve on their own, and figure out what they want for themselves. Instead, they are told what to do and how they should do it from an early age. As a result, it is hard for teenagers to discern their own goals and motivations. This loss of identity definitely impacts their mental health on many levels.

Haley: Why do you think that mental illness is so stigmatized?

Hillary: In general, people do not like to admit that anything is wrong. In towns like Woodside and Atherton, there is this need to put on a proud and happy face all of the time. There are a lot of drawbacks and benefits when it comes to privilege. It is a double edge sword. On the one hand students have access to education, tutors, healthcare, etc. and on the other hand there are huge amounts of pressure and high expectations. People are constantly comparing themselves to one another and the pressure continually builds. Many students and parents alike do not like to consider therapy or treatment options because this is admitting that something is wrong and can be viewed as failure.

Haley: What is one thing that you wish everyone knew about the world of mental health that most don’t?

Hillary: I think that there is also stigma surrounding therapy, but the reality is that every single person has something that they can work on in therapy. It is not simply for people who have severe conditions. Therapy is for people who want to grow and learn more about themselves. People fail to see that everyone has problems and that is part of being human.




Results from a School-wide Survey that Reveal Students Perceptions and Opinions of Mental Health:

The following bar graphs are created from the results of a comprehensive survey that asks students a broad range of questions regarding mental health. After speaking with our school counselor and reviewing the data several times, I decided to display these three graphs because they provide some insight into the stigma that exits in my community. About one quarter of the students at my school believe that people should be able to handle their problems on their own without seeking help. This information reveals that many students feel they should internalize their problems which further perpetuates stigma. In addition, a small proportion of students think that depression should be kept a secret and suicide is a possible solution to problems. When we fail to have honest and open discussions about mental health, students feel that their own challenges are invalid. They can also develop the notion that those who suffer from mental illness are different when in reality we should all be trying to recognize the worthy, dignity, and humanity of those who struggle with mental illnesses. 


Reducing Stigma in My Community: Let’s Talk About Mental Health!

Throughout my exploration of this topic, I have begun to realize that students rarely talk about their own challenges when it comes to mental health. There is no doubt that the topic of mental health is very personal and nobody should ever be forced to share parts of their journey if they are not comfortable or ready to open up. However, I think that students and teenagers can truly benefit from one another by sharing parts of their own stories, asking questions, opening up, and embracing the reality that it is okay to not be okay. I have not only realized this by talking to students and peers in my own community, but also experienced this personally. When I have had the chance to talk with my classmates about mental illness whether it was on a retreat, after an assembly, or during a social justice teach-in, I slowly began to see the stigma of mental health disappear. It is important to recognize that we live in a generation where 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness and we need to bring this topic to the forefront of our conversations.

In order to address the stigma in my community, I want to encourage students and faculty to have honest discussions about mental health. As editor of my school’s newspaper, I have begun to work with the school counselor and Sources of Strength team to create an outlet for students and faculty to initiate conversations about mental health. We have published several articles about mental health including topics ranging from student stress to methods for prioritizing mental health. However, I am also hoping to encourage my peers to talk about mental health in a variety of settings. The following excerpts are from articles and writing by students and are aimed at initiating conversations about mental health in our community: 

“If you ever notice your friend or peer acting irregularly or depressed, please check in with them immediately. You may not realize it, but your friends find most of their sources of strength in their friendships. We SOS members always strive to foster positive relationships with the community, but the level of positive interaction between two friends is hard for us to match. Letting your friends know they are valued and cared for is so much more powerful than our assembly reflections or surveys. It does not have to be an awkward or forced conversation. A simple smile and genuine compliment can go a long way. So, the next time the SOS group speaks at an assembly, remember we are helping you help others. And, if you have time, drop in after school on a Regis day to join our positive conversation in the Otto Library.”

Instead, simply practice what we SOS members do at every meeting: remind yourself of the positives in your life. Dwelling on the past or worrying about the future will only lead to recurring cycles of negative thinking. Do not avoid or withdraw from everyday life, but instead face the variables that you can control and accept the ones you cannot. If you are feeling hopeless or abandoned, remember the countless positive resources you have access to on campus, including the SOS.”

Overall, mental health has been a very difficult problem to tackle, and it is unlikely that it will ever be completely resolved. So, in the meantime, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to minimize the number of mental health issues that occur in the first place. “In a more structural, curricular way, we realize we have more work to do and we’re doing it,” reports Ms. Paustenbach. Until then, it is important to note that there is no shame in struggling with mental health. “All of us will have something that will knock us to our knees in our lifetimes,” Ms. Paustenbach continues, “but if we can be open about seeking help and talking about what we need, then we’re all better for it.”

If you’re stressed at school, take a fun detour over to the farm. Being around animals is very relaxing. Plus, it’s hard to pass up spending some quality time with the cutest bunnies out there. Another way to release stress is to do some exercise. Try running, walking, yoga, biking, or any physical activity. All of which are helpful for reducing your stress. A third thing you can do is sleep. Your teachers understand that you have a lot going on. If you talk to them in advance, they are very understanding of the fact that you may need an extra day to get your work done to the best of your ability. Not only is your health more important than your grades, but lack of sleep will increase your level of stress.”

After working with fellow editors of the newspaper and our school counselor, we have laid a strong foundation to continue these conversations throughout the rest of the year as well as during the following school year. While the previous excerpts are relatively informative, we hope that we will also be able to encourage students to share parts of their journeys so that the community is able to stand in solidarity with one another.

Thank you so much for taking the time to learn a little bit about the stigma surrounding mental health. I hope that you are able to find ways to stand in solidarity with those who may be struggling in your own lives and that you are able to recognize the dignity and humanity of those who may feel isolated or alone.


Share this project