We’ve probably all seen the top 10 myths of health (like that we need 8 glasses of water per day or that we only use 10% of our brain). So that got me to thinking… What are the top 10 myths of mental illness and mental health? I compiled some of my favorites below.
1. Mental illness is just like a medical disease.
While many advocacy organizations and pharmaceutical companies try to imply that mental illness is just a “brain disease,” the truth is that scientists still don’t know what causes mental illness. Furthermore, of the hundreds of research studies done on the brain and the brain’s neurochemistry, not a single one has implicated a single source or cause of any mental disorder. In other words, it’s far more complicated than you know.
Many mental health experts believe in the “bio-psycho-social” model of mental disorders. That is, there are multiple, connected components of most people’s mental illness that include three distinct, yet connected, spheres: (1) the biological and our genetics; (2) the psychological and our personalities; and (3) the social and our environment. All three seem to play an important role in most people’s development of a mental disorder.
2. Medications are the only treatment you need to treat a mental illness.
Psychiatric medications have been prescribed for decades and are generally proven safe and effective in the treatment of most common mental disorders. However, medications are rarely the treatment option that most people should stop at. While taking a pill a day is the easiest treatment option, a pill can only do so much. That’s because mental illness is not like any ordinal medical disease (see Myth #1).
Other treatments — like support groups, psychotherapy, self-help books, etc. – should always be considered by virtually everyone diagnosed with a mental illness. Medications are often the first thing offered, but are best seen as a way to help get a person jump-started in their treatment efforts.
3. If a medication or psychotherapy doesn’t work, that means your situation is hopeless.
Psychiatric medications are a hit-or-miss proposition. For instance, there are over a dozen different antidepressant medications a doctor can prescribe, and the doctor has no idea which one is going to work best for you. So virtually all psychiatric medications are prescribed on a trial-and-error basis – “We’ll see how you do on this, and if need be either increase the dose or switch to a different medication.” Reasons for switching or changing the dose usually include intolerable side effects for the patient, or the medication simply isn’t offering any therapeutic relief.
Just as one may need to try a number of different medications before finding the one that fits “just right,” one may also need to try a number of different therapists before finding one that they feel comfortable and productive with for psychotherapy. There is no “best” way to do this, other than to take therapists through a trial-and-error process too, trying them out one at a time for a few sessions until you find one that you seem to have a positive relationship with.
4. Therapists don’t care about you – they only pretend to care because you pay them.
This is a thought that goes through many people’s head, whether they’re just starting therapy for the first time or they’ve been in therapy for years. The psychotherapy relationship is an odd one, not quite replicated anywhere else in society. It is a professional relationship that will be emotionally intimate, a characteristic most people don’t have much experience with.
The vast majority of therapists, however, don’t go into the psychotherapy profession for the money (because it is one of the poorest paying professions one can be in). Most therapists get into the profession much for the same reason as most doctors or teachers do – they see it as a calling: “People are in need of help and I can help them.” Although it may not seem like that when you’re on the other side of the couch, most psychotherapists do therapy because they genuinely enjoy helping others work through life’s tough problems.
5. If it isn’t serious, it can’t hurt you.
Some people believe that mental illness is really just about “crazy people” — you know, people with schizophrenia who hear voices all the time. But it’s not; mental disorders encompass a wide range of problems in life, including being depressed for no reason for weeks at a time (depression) or being unable to concentrate on any single task for more than a few minutes at a time (ADHD).
A mental disorder doesn’t have to be life-threatening or make you unemployed and homeless in order to have a serious impact on your life. Even mild depression, left untreated for years, can turn into a chronic condition that significantly could impact your quality of life and your relationships.