7 Dangerous Myths about Mental Illness

One of the hallmarks of mental health is, unfortunately, stigma and misinformation. This is an unfortunate consequence of mental illness often being “invisible” compared to physical illnesses. Many symptoms of mental illness are things that only the person experiencing it can really notice. Handling mental health appropriately requires empathy for strangers, and to believe what people say about their thoughts and feelings/ Unfortunately that isn’t as common as it should be. On the plus side, we can clearly see mental health visibility increasing in media, and hopefully these myths will fade away in time. For now, here are some common myths about mental health and what the truth is.

  1. People with mental illness are violent, or violent people are often mentally ill

This one has been debunked time and time again, but it persists as a myth for countless reasons. The most obvious may be portrayals in the media, as well as the urge for us to believe someone wouldn’t commit certain crimes unless they have a mental illness or are “crazy”. The reality is far more complicated, and it’s much easier to dismiss someone as mentally unstable than to learn the context of their situation, or appreciate the ways in which sane people can convince themselves of bizarre things. The inconvenient truth is that perfectly sane people are capable of terrible things, and that mental illness is actually more likely to make someone a victim than a perpetrator.

There are other wrinkles to this though. In actuality, people with serious mental illnesses are more likely to commit acts of violence against themselves or others, but there are only two symptoms of mental illness that lend to these directly- auditory hallucinations and psychosis. Otherwise, it’s more correlation than causation, as the causes of severe mental illness are often the causes of violent behavior; a history of violent behavior or abuse, receiving abuse, having an abusive, drug-addicted or criminal parent. Or put more directly, “a great deal of what is responsible for violence among people with mental illness may be the same factors that are responsible for violence among people without mental illness.”

  1. Psychiatric medications are harmful or “happy pills”

The perspective of medications as “happy pills” is unfortunately built upon mental illness erasure. The approach is that people with mental illnesses are upset emotionally instead of actually mentally ill, and depend upon happy pills to function. As with a lot of things, this often stems from people’s failure to grasp experiences beyond their own.

There’s also a stigma against mental health medications because they’re viewed as harmful, which is an oversimplification at best. Different medications affect everyone differently, and sometimes people will have to try multiple different drugs before finding one that works. Just like all other medications, psychiatric medications come with side-effects, sometimes to the point that they may be more harmful than helpful. But that’s per-person, per-prescription, and if someone is struggling enough to see a doctor, a couple trials of different medications on the way to finding something that works is an even trade.

  1. Mental illness is a sign of weakness

This is perhaps the most unfortunate- or more accurately, ableist- myth of all. It’s effectively a belief that people with a certain type of illness are inferior. If you said the same thing about someone with a physical illness you’d receive a lot of backlash. You could say that it’s because you can see the difference in someone when they’re physically sick and not mentally sick, but even that doesn’t always apply- the problem is mental illness can look like laziness, apathy or other perceived character flaws, but is actually someone being pinned down by their psychological state. One of the most damaging effects of this mentality is how it affects the people who are very much suffering from something that isn’t adequately treated, and instead of getting treatment, they belittle themselves.

  1. Children can’t have mental illnesses

Not only can children have mental illnesses, but many adults struggling with mental illness lament not being able to treat it properly as a child. Myself included- the medication I needed didn’t exist until I was nearly in my 20’s.

The mental illnesses children can have include ADHD, ASD, mood disorders and even PTSD. Given their age, not treating these disorders can rob a child of their potential and cause them problems in adulthood if they’re left to figure it out for themselves. If you or someone you know has a child that is showing possible signs of mental illness, check out this article about it from the National Institute of Mental Health.

  1. Mental illness can’t be prevented

This isn’t just false, it also hides some very serious problems. It can be prevented, it should be prevented, and it’s not.

Mental illness is often caused by genetics, but mental illnesses caused by life experience are extremely common, and often preventable. This can run the gamut from birth conditions to childhood quality of life to economic factors. People who are underprivileged face a greater risk of developing mental illness. Abuse and similar traumatic experiences in childhood make them much more likely to develop a mental illness as a response. Many political issues come attached with indirect psychological consequences, and despite being incredibly important, these factors are often the first to go unnoticed.

  1. Mental illness isn’t that common

Check out this Harvard News article that opens by saying mental illness is as common as a cold. This myth may come from the misunderstanding of mental illness as a more permanent thing, and sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just difficult to treat. But people have brief battles with mental illness all the time as a result of life circumstances- developing depression after something like experiencing loss or a significant life event is normal, as well as treatable.

  1. Talking to someone about suicide can make it worse

This one, honestly, was new to me. It can also be seen as an example of the difficulty in talking about suicide. There have been times in the past where I’ve wanted to discuss it with a friend and found it to be impossible, because there was no way to discuss it calmly with someone that hadn’t faced the exact same problem.

I strongly recommend this BBC article as it not only sheds a lot of light on the problem, but details a number of studies that have been done and the findings they unearthed. In short, there is a common fear that by broaching the topic of suicide to someone in distress, the person bringing it up may be afraid that they’re putting ideas in the person’s head- which is simply untrue. My experience has been quite the opposite. If I was in a state where another person was likely to ask about it, there’s a good chance that I was already contemplating it, even planning it. More often than not what I faced was people simply afraid of talking about it at all even if I had already expressed troubling things of that nature. It likely speaks to the cavernous gap between people desensitized from thoughts of suicide and self-harm versus people with a firmer grasp of the severity and horror of those things.

There are countless other myths that need to be debunked, but these are a few of the biggest ones. Some of these myths and stigma are only going to go away if people know others with mental illnesses, but increased visibility can help people understand other people’s struggles as well as their own.

Any myths about mental health that drive you crazy? Tell us in the comments!

Sources Cited:

DeAngelis, T. (2021, April 1). Mental illness and violence: Debunking myths, addressing realities. Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/04/ce-mental-illness. 

Hammond, C. (2014, January 12). Does discussing suicide make people feel more suicidal? BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140112-is-it-bad-to-talk-about-suicide. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). Children and mental health: Is this just a stage? National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/children-and-mental-health/. 

Jett, L. (2019, November 5). Mental illnesses are common, but care is lacking. Mental Illnesses are Common, but Care is Lacking | Health Care Policy. https://hcp.hms.harvard.edu/news/mental-illnesses-are-common-care-lacking. 

Carroll, H. (2016, June). Victimization and serious mental illness. Treatment Advocacy Center. https://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/evidence-and-research/learn-more-about/3630-victimization-and-serious-mental-illness. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). Children and mental health: Is this just a stage? National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/children-and-mental-health/. 

Other Sources:

Mental health myths and facts. Mental Health Myths and Facts | MentalHealth.gov. (2017, August 29). https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/mental-health-myths-facts. 

Ross, S. L. (2019, October 1). Six myths and facts about mental illness. NAMI. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2019/Six-Myths-and-Facts-about-Mental-Illness. 

NAMI NH. (n.d.). https://www.naminh.org/get-involved/advocate/help-fight-stigma/facts-myths/. 

Myths & facts about mental illness. Frontier Behavioral Health. (2021, August 9). https://fbhwa.org/facts/about-behavioral-health/myths-facts-about-mental-illness. 

The media is perpetuating a dangerous myth about mental illness. Your NAMI Affiliate. (n.d.). https://namimc.org/media-perpetuating-dangerous-myth-mental-illness/. 

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, May 24). Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477. 

Borenstein, J. (Ed.). (2020, August). Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness. Stigma and discrimination. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination. 

Stigma and discrimination. Mental Health Foundation. (2021, July 20). https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stigma-and-discrimination. 

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