For those dealing with mental illness, discussing challenges can be difficult. The stigma surrounding mental health can make people feel excluded, silenced and misunderstood. Lack of awareness about what causes mental health problems has been the main driver of the stigmas.
Clearing up misconceptions and eliminating stigmas around mental health challenges are the best ways to ensure more people seek treatment and receive the care they need. With the help of Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW, a therapist at Park Nicollet, we’ve debunked some of the common myths about mental illnesses – and encourage you to pass on the facts, too.
Myth #1: Mental illnesses are rare
The myth that mental illness is rare is likely the result of a lack of open, public dialogue about the number of lives it actually touches. But the reality is that mental illnesses are very common – one in 5 people will develop a mental health issue at some point in their life, while one in 25 Americans are currently living with a serious mental illness.
Unfortunately, young children and teens are not exempt. Mental, behavioral and developmental disorders impact 17% of U.S. children between the ages of two and eight. For teens 13-18 years old, nearly half have experienced some form of mental disorder.
Medical professionals define mental illness as a group of conditions that can cause instability, disturbances and uncommon changes in your thoughts, emotions and behavior. Signs of a mental illness include changes in your mood, feeling tense or “antsy,” an inability to concentrate, as well as tell-tale physical challenges like constant fatigue, trouble sleeping, chronic muscle tension and drastic changes to your appetite (overeating and loss of appetite).
Not only are mental illnesses common, but they also don’t always last for long periods of time. Episodic conditions – ones that come and go in “waves” – like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) are also considered mental health conditions.
A mental illness is considered serious once it begins to substantially interfere with activities of daily living like going to work, caring for children or maintaining personal hygiene. While there are several mental health conditions that fall into this category, the common ones are:
- Bipolar disorder
- Major depressive disorder
Myth #2: If you try harder, you can make your symptoms go away
There’s a common misconception that getting rid of a mental health condition simply requires the right amount of willpower, discipline or mental toughness. That is not the case.
Mental illnesses can’t be willed away. And for those who are experiencing them, buying into this myth, or having family and friends that believe it, can feel very defeating. It’s important to understand that facing a mental health challenge doesn’t mean you’re weak or have some kind of character defect.
What’s more, causes of mental illness often include biological, social, physical or any combination of these three factors. Some specific causes are:
- Genetic predisposition (it “runs in the family”)
- Chemical imbalance in the brain
- Mental or physical trauma as a child or adult
- Loneliness or social isolation
- Neurological issues, including brain injuries
- Alcohol or drug use
- Serious or chronic physical illness
Not all mental health issues can be treated the same. Some individuals may need medicine, talk therapy or a combination of both, to manage their symptoms. Others may require more specialized treatment.
Myth #3: Everyone who has a mental illness needs medication to manage symptoms
While some people with a mental illness may be prescribed medication as part of their treatment plan, this isn’t the case for everyone. There are people with mental illnesses who don’t need medicine to manage their symptoms.
It’s important to remember no two people are the same. Sometimes medicine can be very helpful in managing symptoms. And for certain people, it may even be crucial to recovery. So, what’s the best treatment for mental illness? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for treating mental illness.
Depending on the how frequently and severely you experience symptoms, your care team may recommend one or more of the following in addition to – or in place of – medication:
- Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy)
- Lifestyle changes like improving your diet, exercising regularly and reducing stress
- Strengthening your social support networks
Myth #4: Keeping a job is too stressful for individuals with mental illness
The belief that someone with a mental health condition is unable to work or keep a job is false. Stigmas around mental illness can feel particularly damaging in the workplace, making it difficult for employees to take the care and time they would if they were dealing with “normal” health conditions.
A national poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that one in three employees fear that seeking mental health care may lead to some form of retaliation, or even being fired.
The reality is that workers with mental illnesses are no different than your average employee. Employers who hire people with mental illness report that they are just as productive, punctual, dependable and motivated as those who do not have a mental illness. And having a job can be beneficial to those living with a mental health issue – it provides structure and a sense of personal purpose.
Myth #5: Someone living with a mental illness is more likely to commit a crime or be violent
The idea that people with mental health conditions are more violent continues to be one of the more persistent myths about mental illness. But it’s simply not the case.
A mere 7.5% of violent acts are committed by people experiencing symptoms of mental illness. More often than not, individuals with mental health issues are not violent. Someone with a mental illness is actually nearly four times more likely to be the victim of crime, and people living with a severe mental illness are 10 times more likely to experience violent crime.
Myth #6: Individuals who experience mental health symptoms will never recover
The myth that someone will never recover and lead a healthy, productive life is simply not true. In fact, when treated, people with mental illnesses are able to live happy, ambitious lives that are meaningful and fulfilling.
Mental illnesses are treatable health conditions very common in the world today. They can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, race or income. While people are still afraid to talk about them due to shame, misunderstanding and fear of discrimination, there is hope. Organizations across the country and around the world are actively working to dispel this myth and make it easier and more acceptable for people with mental illness to talk about it and seek treatment.
Don’t let mental health stigmas hold you back
There are many more myths about mental illness, but it’s important to know the facts so that you’re prepared to make the best decisions for you or your loved ones. If you’re facing a mental illness, don’t let stigmas stop you from seeking help. You don’t have to go it alone.
A great first step toward treatment is speaking with one of our primary care doctors to evaluate your situation and get you on the path to feeling your best and leading a healthy life. Your doctor will be able to answer your questions, develop an initial treatment plan and connect you with a mental health specialist when needed.