Shedding Light on Mental Health Stigma and the Truth About Treatment

January 22, 2018

At Born This Way Foundation, we’re proud to shine the light on organizations that are helping make the world a kinder, braver place. This month, we are excited to showcase Seattle Children’s Hospital, an organization actively working to help young people in crisis and destigmatize mental health treatment. Tune into our Twitter #KindnessChat on January 24 at 1 p.m. to learn more about their work.

John Madden, now 22 years old, has referred to his stay as a teenager in the Seattle Children’s Psychiatric and Behavioral Medicine Unit as the 10 most important days of his life.


When John Madden was 16 years old, the growing stress from his demanding academic schedule became a catalyst for larger issues.

Madden had withdrawn from friends and family. His misuse of prescription medication and use of illicit drugs to cope with the stress further aggravated undiagnosed mental conditions. Bouts of depression and mania sometimes left him sleepless for days with little control over his thoughts and actions.

Madden recognized he needed help, but he was not relieved when he was admitted to the Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit (PBMU).

“I had this Hollywood view of treatment and thought it was going to jump from talking to being restraint-oriented, locked in a room and treated sub-human,” Madden said. “I wanted to avoid that stigma about what goes on in mental health hospitals.”

A restraint- and seclusion-free healing environment
Madden’s experience in the PBMU sharply contrasted his expectations of over-the-top treatment dramatized in pop culture. He has called his time in the PBMU the 10 most important days of his life.

“At first, I didn’t want to be there,” Madden said. “Part way through my stay, I felt more comfortable and my mindset changed. I was able to sleep for eight or nine hours for the first time since I could remember.”

There weren’t any doctors in lab coats or orderlies carrying patients away. The door to his room was unlocked and Madden could walk around the unit whenever he wanted.

“Our PBMU is a soft landing spot for children and teens who may need to pause and reset,” Seattle Children’s PBMU Director Ann Moore said. “The goal is to meet patients and families where they’re at and equip them with skills to better cope with the challenges in their lives.”

Group discussions and conference calls with Madden’s parents were part of daily treatment.

“It was very low-key, guided group therapy,” Madden said. “You didn’t know you were getting treatment. It was more about sharing what you do when you’re struggling with something.”

Madden spent part of his time identifying what triggered his conditions and worked on strategies to deal with them. He learned healthy coping skills and received medications to help manage his conditions.

Madden’s PBMU experience helped form a solid foundation to better address the challenges brought on by his conditions in the five years since. He graduated high school on time and completed training as a welder. Now 22 years old, Madden sets daily goals as part of managing his conditions. He works full-time and lives on his own.

“I like to think that I live a pretty normal life,” Madden said. “This is just like any other illness. It doesn’t condemn you.”

Accepting mental health conditions, rejecting the mental health stigma
Misconceptions like those Madden had prior to his own experience help feed and are sometimes influenced by widespread stigma surrounding the subject of mental health. Stigma, or shame associated with a circumstance, quality or person, is a frequently cited barrier keeping many people from seeking treatment or communicating about mental health issues.

“Patients and families feel judged when dealing with mental health issues, like they’ve failed and allowed this to happen,” Moore said. “That’s just not the case. It’s not our place or anyone else’s to pass judgement on why a person comes to us for help.”

Stigma exist surrounding mental illness despite its prevalence in the United States:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly half of all adults in the U.S. will develop a mental illness in their lifetime; and 25% of U.S. adults—more than 40 million—have a mental illness.
  • Nearly 12% of 12- to 17-year-olds reported a major depressive episode in the past year, and rates of severe depression in youth increased from 5.9% in 2012 to 8.2% in 2015, according to Mental Health America.

Moore wants parents and children to understand that reaching out for help or speaking about behavioral and mental issues should feel natural and normal.

“If a child breaks a leg or gets strep throat, they see a doctor,” Moore said. “Other children might be so anxious and worried that they can’t function. There are treatments and interventions for all of these experiences.”

Reaching out to address mental health issues
It can be difficult to detect symptoms of mental health issues early on. If a mental or behavioral specialist isn’t available, parents should feel comfortable reaching out to their pediatrician or primary care provider, who can work on next steps for care.

Madden urges people of all ages to use their voice when they experience problems, and for others to listen to them.

“Whether someone is experiencing challenges big or small, reach out,” Madden said. “There are resources for everyone from all walks of life, regardless of income level. I think it’s important for parents to connect with their child and trust in them even if they can’t understand what their child is telling them.”

Resources for children and families
Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Patient and Family Resources

For all U.S. residents: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline1-800-662-4357 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.

How 10 Days at Seattle Children’s Changed My Life
CDC Mental Illness Surveillance
Washington State Department of Social and Health Services
Mental Health In America – Youth Data