I’ve recently read about young people using the “pasta code” to tell others “in the know” that they are in emotional distress and may be at risk of hurting themselves. (‘I had pasta tonight’ becomes TikTok code for feeling suicidal.)

Young people are particularly vulnerable to mental health crises. From NAMI, here are some statistics on the early age at which mental health struggles begin: 

  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34

Some are applauding the “pasta code,” noting – rightly – that when a person is in crisis, finding a way to ask for help is a critical first step in the healing process. However, as a former practicing psychiatric social worker, I know that getting appropriate mental health care depends upon being able to speak openly and authentically about what we’re going through. The compulsion among young people to use coded phrases to ask for help is concerning because it signals a reluctance to be open about experiencing emotional distress. This reluctance is likely due to stigma around mental health and it is preventing these young people from getting the support they need before their situation becomes a crisis.

The Oxford Dictionary defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” Below are just a few examples of the kind of stigmatic beliefs that compel young people to hide their pain or share it only in the relative safety of coded language:

  • People who need therapy or who have to take medication are “crazy.”
  • The way to handle emotional pain is “power through it.” 
  • Nobody wants to hear my/your problems.
  • People who “act out” just want attention.
  • Acknowledging that you need emotional help is a sign of weakness.

Stigma about mental health not only minimizes the reality of emotional distress, it is deeply harmful to young people who are suffering because it can keep them from accessing support and resources early, leading to more severe symptoms that can be life-threatening. I’ve written about the harmful effects of stigmas around mental health in other articles (5 Persistent Mental Health Myths, and Don’t Let Stigmas About Mental Health Harm The Youth In Your Life).

The Socialwork Degree Guide lists 5 long term benefits of being able to overcome stigma and seek mental health care early, before a crisis point is reached: 

  • Less Intense Treatment
  • Fewer Logistical Consequences
  • Fewer and Less Severe Continuing Symptoms
  • Longer and Fuller Recovery
  • Increased Self Esteem and Motivation

For the sake of everyone who experiences emotional distress –  particularly our youth – we need to end the stigma around mental health so that people are able to get appropriate support as early as possible. 

We can do this by: 

  • Normalizing conversations about emotions and feelings in our families, in our classrooms and workplaces, and with our friends; 
  • Becoming “allies” to the people in our lives who may need support. I encourage people to check out NoStigmas’ free online Ally Training course. 
  • Learning how to listen with empathy, generosity and compassion so that the youth in our lives can share what they’re going through without fear of being judged. Read more about empathetic listening in this article on the Mental Health First Aid website;  
  • Ensuring that the young people in our care have a safe space to talk about what they’re experiencing. If you’re interested in learning more, I recently published an article with guidance on safe spaces here on Thrive Global: “The Importance of Providing Your Teen With A Safe Space to Discuss Difficult Issues.”  
  • Raising awareness about the importance of making mental health care more accessible and affordable for everyone. You can learn more in this report from the National Council on Behavioral Health: Lack of Access is a Root Cause for the Mental Health Crisis in America

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant as professional advice or counseling. If you or someone you know is in distress, help is available 24/7:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255 (TALK) Spanish &
English; Deaf & Hard of Hearing TTY 800–799–4889

Crisis Text Line – Text HELLO to 741741 to connect with a live counselor

Call 911

If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment but cannot afford it, contact Rise Above The Disorder, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to making mental health care accessible to everyone: YouAreRAD.org