Myths About Mental Illness

People are often afraid to talk about mental health because there are many misconceptions about mental illnesses. It’s important to learn the facts to stop discrimination and to begin treating people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity.

Myth: Mental illnesses are not true medical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. People who have a mental illness are just “crazy.”

Fact: Mental illnesses are brain disorders.  And, brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are legitimate medical illnesses. People with these disorders are often subjected to social isolation, poor quality of life and increased mortality.  These disorders are the cause of staggering economic and social costs.  Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for psychiatric disorders, and they can be treated effectively.

Myth: Mental illnesses cannot affect me.

Fact: Mental illnesses are surprisingly common throughout the world.  I in every four people, or 25% of individuals, develop one or more mental disorders at some stage in life.  Today, 450 million people suffer from mental disorders in both developed and developing countries.  Mental illnesses do not discriminate – they can affect anyone, men, women and children regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

Myth: There’s no hope for people with mental illnesses.

Fact: There are more treatment, self-help strategies and community supports available than ever before, and even more are on the horizon. People with mental illnesses can recover and lead active, productive lives.  Science has shown that having hope plays an integral role in an individual’s recovery.

Myth: Once people develop mental illnesses, they will never recover.

Fact: Studies show that most people with mental illnesses get better with treatment, and many recover completely. Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities. For some individuals, recovery is the ability to live a fulfilling and productive life. For others, recovery implies the reduction or complete remission of symptoms. Recovery rates for mental illnesses surpass treatment success rates for many other physical illnesses including heart disease.  Recovery rates include: schizophrenia, 60%, bipolar disorder 80%, major depression, and 65% to 80%.

Myth: Therapy and self-help are wastes of time. Why bother when you can just take one of those pills you hear about on TV?

Fact: Treatment varies depending on the individual. A lot of people work with therapists, counselors, their peers, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers in their recovery process. They also use self-help strategies and community supports. Often these methods are combined with some of the most advanced medications available.

Myth: Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as “shock treatment,” is painful and barbaric.

Fact: ECT has given a new lease on life to many people who suffer from severe and debilitating depression. It is used when other treatments such as psychotherapy or medication fail or cannot be used. Patients who receive ECT are asleep and under anesthesia, so they do not feel anything.

Myth: I can’t do anything for someone with mental health needs.

Fact: You can do a lot, starting with the way you act and how you speak. You can nurture an environment that builds on people’s strengths and promotes good mental health. For example:

  • Avoid labeling people with words like “crazy,” “wacko,” “loony,” or by their diagnosis. Instead of saying someone is a “schizophrenic” say “a person with schizophrenia.”
  • Learn the facts about mental health and share them with others, especially if you hear something that is untrue.
  • Treat people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity, as you would anybody else.
  • Respect the rights of people with mental illnesses and don’t discriminate against them when it comes to housing, employment, or education. Like other people with disabilities, people with mental health needs are protected under Federal and State laws.

Myth: Mental illness is the same as mental retardation.

Fact: The two are distinct disorders. A mental retardation diagnosis is characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and difficulties with certain daily living skills. In contrast, people with mental illnesses—health conditions that cause changes in a person’s thinking, mood, and behavior—have varied intellectual functioning, just like the general population.

Myth: People with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, are usually dangerous and violent.

Fact: Statistics show that the incidence of violence in people who have a brain disorder is not much higher than it is in the general population. Those suffering from a psychosis such as schizophrenia are more often frightened, confused and despairing than violent.

Myth: Mental illnesses are brought on by a weakness of character.

Fact: Mental illnesses are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. Research has shown genetic and biological factors are associated with schizophrenia, depression, and alcoholism. Social influences, such as loss of a loved one or a job, can also contribute to the development of various disorders.

Myth: If you have a mental illness, you can will it away. Being treated for a psychiatric disorder means an individual has in some way “failed” or is weak.

Fact: A serious mental illness cannot be willed away. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away, either. It takes courage to seek professional help.

Myth: Mental illness is the result of bad parenting.

Fact: Most experts agree that a genetic susceptibility, combined with other risk factors, leads to a psychiatric disorder. In other words, mental illnesses have a physical cause.

Myth: Depression results from a personality weakness or character flaw, and people who are depressed could just snap out of it if they tried hard enough.

Fact: Depression has nothing to do with being lazy or weak. It results from changes in brain chemistry or brain function, and medication and/or psychotherapy often help people to recover.

Myth: Depression is a normal part of the aging process.

Fact: It is not normal for older adults to be depressed. Signs of depression in older people include a loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances and lethargy. Depression in the elderly is often undiagnosed, and it is important for seniors and their family members to recognize the problem and seek professional help.

Myth: Schizophrenia means split personality, and there is no way to control it.

Fact: Schizophrenia is often confused with multiple personality disorder. Actually, schizophrenia is a brain disorder that robs people of their ability to think clearly and logically. The estimated 25 million people worldwide suffering with schizophrenia has symptoms ranging from social withdrawal to hallucinations and delusions. Effective treatment has helped many of these individuals to lead fulfilling, productive lives.

Myth: Children and adolescents do not experience mental illnesses. Depression and other illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, do not affect them. Any problems they have are just a part of growing up, or a result of bad parenting.

Fact: Children and adolescents can develop severe mental illnesses. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, USA, 50% of lifetime cases begin by age 14, 75% of lifetime cases begin by age 24, and the risk of onset reduces past the high risk age of 14 – 24. Just like adult mental illnesses, these are clinically diagnosable health conditions that are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, social, and sometimes even genetic factors.

Myth: Children misbehave or fail in school just to get attention.

Fact: Behavior problems can be symptoms of emotional, behavioral, or mental disorders, rather than merely attention-seeking devices.These children can succeed in school with appropriate understanding, attention, and mental health services.

Myth: People with mental illnesses cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.

Fact: In essence, all jobs are stressful to some extent. Productivity is maximized when there is a good match between the employee’s needs and working conditions, whether or not the individual has mental health needs.

Myth: People with mental health needs, even those who have received effective treatment and have recovered, tend to be second-rate workers on the job.

Fact: Employers who have hired people with mental illnesses report good attendance and punctuality, as well as motivation, quality of work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), USA and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), USA show that there are no differences in productivity when people with mental illnesses are compared to other employees.

SOURCES:  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), USA, National Institute of Mental Health, USA, World Health Organization.