There are still many myths floating around out there about mental illness, ranging from the absurd to the contradictory to the somewhat plausible. All are equally false. Unfortunately, these ideas make it harder for those suffering from mental health troubles to get the support and attention they need.

Below are eight misconceptions about mental health and mental illness:

  1. Mental illness is destructive, but thankfully it is still not all that common. According to a recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.6 percent of American adults (43.7 million people) will suffer from some form of mental illness in any given year. Among the adolescent age group (ages 13 to 18), the figure hovers right around the 20 percent mark. Up to 45 percent of these victims will have two or more diagnosable conditions simultaneously, while approximately six percent of the population currently suffers from a severe, disabling form of mental health disorder.
  2. The incidence of mental illness has been exaggerated by doctors trolling for patients and pharmaceutical companies looking for easy targets. Mental health disorders are real and cause significant suffering. If the incidence of mental illness seems extraordinarily high, it is only because people are acknowledging what had previously been kept hidden behind a wall of shame and denial.
  3. Some of the so-called “mentally ill” are just making excuses for their weakness or failure. These people need to stop whining, get up off the couch and go find a job. Anyone who claims mental health conditions are the bogus rationalizations of the chronic underachiever is talking out of his or her you-know-what. Mental health disorders don’t discriminate based on age, race, gender, ethnicity, occupation (or lack thereof), religion, social strata, economic class, ethnic background, political party or life philosophy.
  4. When people are mentally ill, they can’t hold down a job or take care of themselves and their families properly. This is sometimes true with respect to the more severe forms of mental illness, but the majority of those suffering from mental health disorders are able to meet their work requirements and fulfill their family responsibilities most of the time. But because so many sufferers seem fine, even those closest to them don’t realize how much they’re hurting.
  5. The mentally ill should be feared because of their propensity for violence. Every study carried out on the subject has found that people suffering from mental illness are more likely to become the victims of violence than to be its perpetrators. And when those with mental health troubles do become violent, it tends to be related to that abuse. According to one recent study, mentally ill people subjected to violence are 11 times more likely to become violent themselves, which suggests that their actions are frequently in self-defense.
  6. Mental health disorders are biological. That is what the latest science shows. This is partially true but not entirely accurate. Medical researchers are studying the neurological factors of mental illness now because the technology allows them to, and that has given them insight into aspects of these conditions that were previously neglected or not well understood. Mental illness has a strong biological/neurological component, but a reductionist equation that reduces it to this status inhibits understanding by ignoring important environmental and psychological factors.
  7. People can recover from depression or anxiety disorders with drugs alone; in fact this is the only type of treatment that really works for these conditions. Psychiatrists routinely prescribe medication to help with these disorders, and that is grounded in evidence-based practice. But pharmaceuticals work best (when they work, which isn’t always) if used temporarily and in conjunction with psychotherapy, peer support groups and self-help strategies designed to eliminate lifestyle triggers connected to the onset or worsening of the disease.
  8. When the mentally ill attempt suicide, it is a cry for help. People suffering from mental health disorders will become suicidal only if their earlier, actual cries for help were not noticed, acknowledged or taken seriously. Failed suicide attempts by the mentally ill are a sign that urgent and immediate intervention is required, but the best course of action is to respond to the initial cries for help at the time they actually occur.


Woman suffering photo available from Shutterstock