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Top 10 Myths of Mental Illness

6. Psychology and psychiatry aren’t “real sciences.” They’re supported only by fuzzy research and contradictory findings.

Research into mental illness tries to understand where it comes from and what treatments are most effective in helping people cope. Psychological research dates back more than a century, starting around the same time that modern research began in medicine and our better understanding the human body. Its rich history and scientific methods are far more complex than the simple, popular image of Sigmund Freud sitting in his office listening to patients as they lie on a couch.

Some who argue this point come from different scientific backgrounds and use different yardsticks from those fields to try and “measure” psychology, psychiatry and the neurosciences by. Unfortunately, that’s like comparing apples to oranges and then coming away upset that because they taste so different from one another, these two couldn’t possibly both be fruits. Psychology and its related sciences are indeed “real science,” using well-accepted scientific methods and methodologies that have been time-tested and that produce real, verifiable, and actionable results.

7. Mental illness is a myth, based upon arbitrary societal definitions designed only to sell you drugs or psychotherapy.

This is one of the most difficult myths to challenge because there is some truth to it. Much of how we define mental illness today is based upon definitions we humans created while observing sets of symptoms that seemed to cluster together when people presented with certain concerns. People’s suffering is no myth, but arriving at how we understand that suffering and then helping the person through it is open to a wide range of interpretations and options.

The most common method in science is to identify similar groupings of symptoms, give them a label, and then discover what kinds of interventions work best in helping a person feel relieved of those symptoms. Some of this is steeped in rigorous scientific method, but some of it feels (and perhaps is) more arbitrary and political. Mental illness is no myth, but some of our definitions could be a lot better and more discrete. And, for the record, defining mental illness came long before the practical, modern profession of psychotherapy and pharmaceutical companies.

8. Children can’t have serious mental disorders.

There is a whole category in the official diagnostic manual of mental disorders for children’s mental disorders, some of which are well-known, diagnosed, and treated, such as attention deficit disorder (ADHD) and autism. But in the past decade or so, some researchers and professionals are suggesting that many adult mental disorders are also possibly found (and perhaps even widespread) in children.

The jury is still out whether it’s legitimate to diagnose a 3- or 4-year old child with adult bipolar disorder (how one discriminates mood swings typical of normal childhood at this age versus a disorder is beyond me), but it’s a possibility. The debate centers around scientifically distinguishing expected, normal childhood behaviors (even when they span a wide continuum) from serious adult-like mental disorders that need their own specific treatment plan. More research is needed before a conclusion can be made.

9. Doctor/patient confidentiality is absolute and always protected.

Just as in a lawyer/client relationship, confidentiality between a doctor and his or her patient, or a therapist and his or her client, is not absolute. While it is a legally protected relationship much like a lawyer/client relationship, there are times when in most states a therapist can be compelled by a court to testify about something said in session or about a client’s background. These exceptions are extremely limited, however, to specific circumstances, usually involving the health or safety of a child.

There are other times when a therapist may need to violate the confidentiality of a relationship as well. Most therapists go through these circumstances with their clients at the start of the therapy relationship. Instances of such disclosures might include if the client is in imminent harm to themselves or others, or if the therapist becomes aware of child or elder abuse. Outside of these exceptions, however, confidentiality is always maintained by a professional.

10. Mental illness is no longer stigmatized in society.

I wish this were a myth, but sadly, it is not yet. Mental illness in most societies throughout the world is still badly stigmatized and looked down upon. In some societies, even admitting to a possible mental health concern can make you ostracized from your family, coworkers, and the rest of society.

In the U.S., we’ve come a long way in the past two decades with significantly more research, and increased understanding and acceptance of mental illness. While still not as accepted as having a common medical condition like diabetes, most people view common mental illnesses such as depression or ADHD as just another one of those concerns of modern life. Someday, I hope this is true in the rest of the world as well.

Top 10 Myths of Mental Illness

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Top 10 Myths of Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Jun 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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