The 7 Biggest Misconceptions About Mental Health
Currently, the field of psychology has advanced in precise diagnosis (i.e. determining what is wrong) and treatments based on scientific research.
However, mental health disorders still hold a negative connotation because they often come across as confusing and frightening.
This article contains some of the most common misconceptions about mental health and shows why they’re wrong.
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- Misconception 1: Substance Abuse, Anxiety, And Depression Are Not “Mental Illnesses”
- Misconception 2: It Is Not Possible To Have A Little Bit Of Mental Illness – You Either Have It Or You Don’t
- Misconception 3: Mental Illness Is The Result of Poor Parenting
- Misconception 4: Mental Illness Leads to Violence
- Misconception 5: Black People Don’t Suffer From Mental Illnesses
- Misconception 6: Depression Is a Chemical Imbalance That Medication Can Cure
- Misconception 7: Addicts Are Antisocial
Misconception 1: Substance Abuse, Anxiety, And Depression Are Not “Mental Illnesses”
Many people don’t want to be called ‘mentally ill’. Some people choose the labels ‘abnormality’, ‘condition’ and ‘syndrome.’
Other people prefer ‘disorder’. But according to psychiatrists, ‘disorder’ and ‘illness’ mean the same thing.
The UK government says that one in four of its citizens will develop a ‘mental illness’ during their lifetime. These figures include the big three – substance abuse, anxiety and depression.
Some people choose to distinguish mental illness from severe mental illness, with the latter group made up of people who lose touch with reality.
Misconception 2: It Is Not Possible To Have A Little Bit Of Mental Illness – You Either Have It Or You Don’t
Officially, a condition, such as OCD, depression, bipolar, etc. is either present or it’s not. It is no more possible to be a little bit depression than it is to be a little bit pregnant or a little bit dead.
You are either depressed or you are not.
There are some valid reasons for this distinction. In order to monitor illnesses and decide who is eligible for treatment, professionals have to set certain requirements.
But in the real world, things aren’t that simple.
Subclinical disorders are everywhere.
A person who’s struggling with depression or anxiety, might not satisfy the characteristics, and might not recognize that they have a mental health problem. This can mean the issue won’t get talked about, and support and treatment won’t be sought. Things can go from bad to worse.
Just as autism is now considered a spectrum of related syndromes, so other disorders can sit on their own spectrum, and require as much attention as an official diagnosis.
The conceptual shift to view certain disorders as a spectrum of related conditions rather than an isolated problem can help understand those affected better, and can help them to understand themselves.
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Misconception 3: Mental Illness Is The Result of Poor Parenting
When there is an illness, the first question the attending doctor is asked is typically either how did this happen or what caused this.
Knowing the underlying cause somehow seems to make things more tolerable.
When parents learn that their child has a mental illness, the first question that comes up to their mind is, “What did we do wrong? Where did we screw up? We tried to be the best parents we could be, and yet it was not good enough.”
But mental dis-order can grow from order.
The fact that someone struggles with anxiety doesn’t imply fault more than struggling with diabetes doesn’t.
While it’s true that many mental disorders can develop from childhood maltreatment or abuse, one does not cause the other in all cases.
Someone who grew up in a healthy family and who was properly nurtured, might struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder or depression just like a child who grew up in an abusive environment.
Misconception 4: Mental Illness Leads to Violence
Sometimes, we use certain terms that ascribe negative traits to people we don’t really know, such as that woman is a weirdo, he is creepy, etc, especially when it comes to those with mental illness.
A study from 2012 conducted by Parker Magin and colleagues showed that almost 30 per cent of people in a medical waiting room said that they would be uncomfortable sharing it with someone who has schizophrenia.
12 per cent said they would be uncomfortable sharing with someone diagnosed with depression.
Some argues that the stigmatization of mental illness can be considered a ‘second disease’ for the mentally unwell, given the way others treat them.
This leads increased anxiety, stress and lower quality of life.
But is this warranted? Do people with mental illness constitue a real threat?
An in-depth study, funded partly by the US National Research Council, by Mark Moore and colleagues, showed that in the case of lethal school violence, ‘serious mental health problems, including schizophrenia, clinical depression, and personality disorders, surfaced after the shootings’ for most of the shooters.
In other words, mental illness in itself, does not seem to be the cause of lashing out. Instead, it is part of a complex array of problems that include isolation, lack of parental support, bullying, substance abuse and easy access to guns.
Another study of offenders with mental illnesses by Jillian Peterson and colleagues from 2014, revealed that of the 429 crimes they coded, 4 per cent related directly to a psychosis (including symptoms of schizophrenia), 3 per cent related to depression, and 10 per cent related to bipolar disorder.
The authors of the study concluded, ‘Psychiatric symptoms relate weakly to criminal behavior.’
In fact, it is often the same kinds of circumstances that lead to violence in general that also lead to violence for the mentally ill.
So where does the connection between crime and mental illness come from?
One factor seems to be substance abuse.
People with mental illness, such as schizophrenia or depression are more likely than the average person to take drugs or engage in problematic drinking, in an attempt to escape the awful symptoms they are experiencing.
A study from 2015 by Ragnar Nesvåg and colleagues revealed that the rate of diagnosed substance-use disorders were at 25.1 per cent for schizophrenia, 20.1 per cent for bipolar disorder and 10.9 per cent for depression.
In this sense mental illness can be a risk factor for substance abuse, which in turn is a risk factor for violence.
It seems that substance abuse is the link here, not the mental illness per se. Mental illness alone is not an indicator of violent tendencies.
This means that the emotional and physical distance we keep from people with mental illness is unfounded but also devastating for those affected.
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Misconception 5: Black People Don’t Suffer From Mental Illnesses
A study conducted in the early ’90s, church pastors, asked about their opinions regarding Black suicide, responded by saying that suicide was a “denial of Black identity and culture.”
The overarching message from the pastors was that suicide is “a white thing” and that Black people are resilient.
This assumption about suicide was embraced throughout the Black community, according to the same study.
However, studies indicate that the suicide rate among Black adolescents has increased by 73 percent while for young Black males, injury from suicide attempt rose by 122 percent — indicating they are using more lethal means according to the executive summary of a report by the Congressional Black Caucus, “Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America”.
This, in itself, implies an epidemic in Black mental health.
Often, the psychological distress goes unchecked. Despite being in pain, many black people don’t recognize their pain as a crisis and don’t reach out for help. They assume that they are supposed to have the strength to handle whatever life throws at them.
Recognizing the dire state of Black mental health requires changing the idea of what it means to be emotionally healthy.
Just because you were able to get the boys fed and off to school and get yourself to work, does not mean that all is well and that you can’t accomplish your daily tasks while feeling so sad and empty.
Misconception 6: Depression Is a Chemical Imbalance That Medication Can Cure
In psychiatry, the theory that mental illness is due to an inherent flaw in the neurochemistry of the brain, that is altered and corrected by the medications, has been the prevailing for more than half a century.
However, this theory has been refuted by a long list of studies.
In fact, when the hypothesis was first theorized it was based on only a handful of neurotransmitters that were known to exist. However, we now know that hundreds of chemicals in the body function as neurotransmitters or “neuromodulators,” such as amino acids and hormones. It’s delusional to think that medication could balance such a complex system.
In 1992 Roger Greenberg and colleagues analyzed twenty-two studies of antidepressant outcomes and found that even though clinicians consistently reported significant effects, patient reports showed no advantage for antidepressants beyond placebo effect.
So why medication is still being promoted when so much evidence exists to prove its inefficacy?
One reason is that medication can relieve symptoms of anxiety, sleep difficulties, or depression. But that doesn’t mean that the problem is solved.
In fact, relying on medication prevents one from learning skills to manage stressful situations now and in the future, which, over time, can exacerbates the depression it was attempting to alleviate, while additionally increasing side effects of these medications.
Depending on which study you look at, 60 to 84 percent of patients report side effects, such as nausea, stomach complaints, insomnia, headache, dizziness, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, increased anxiety, sweating, dry mouth, changes in weight, and sexual dysfunction.
In other words, the cure medication offers, is probably creating greater dysfunction, making it even more difficult to recover.
The theory of chemical imbalance, in a way, makes people believe that their minds are broken and prevents them from seeking tools to manage their emotions in the future and make changes in their lives.
Misconception 7: Addicts Are Antisocial
In her book Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, Maia Szalavitz tells us that, unlike what many people assume, addictions do not arise from an antisocial personality disorder or character flaw.
It is true that the odds of addiction are elevated in those who are compulsive and eager to try new things. But there is no singular “addictive personality.”
Other factors, such as genetics, developmental differences, mental illnesses, environment and people’s own reactions to it, or some mixture contribute to the likelihood of developing addictions.
Szalavitz concludes that one fundamental factor in developing an addiction is the inability to self-regulate—that is, to manage emotions and control impulses.
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- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side, © 2018 by Julia Shaw. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Life Is Trichy, © 2014 by Lindsey Muller. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health, © 2020 by Rheeda Walker. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, © 2014 by David Adam. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Healing Depression Without Medication, © 2020 by Jodie Skillicorn. All rights reserved.