Misconceptions About Mental Illness

About a quarter of adults in the United States live with a diagnosable mental illness, yet many of us don’t know much about mental illness, or worse, we believe things that just aren’t true. Here are seven common misconceptions about mental illness.

Myth #1: It’s not a real illness.

Before science took hold of public consciousness, mental illness was attributed to things like demon possession or immorality. Even now, many individuals don’t believe that mental illness is a real condition. Instead, they think mental illness sufferers need to “just get over it” or stop thinking unusual thoughts. In reality, mental illness is like any other disease.

“You wouldn’t expect someone with cancer to just get over it; the same goes for schizophrenia.”

Myth #2: Everyone understands mental illness but you.

What are the different disorders? What are the politically correct terms? It’s good to be cautious with your words when you talk about mental health, but don’t let that keep you from discussing it. Most people don’t know the lingo; it’s a bit like a foreign language.

Rosemary Milbrath, the executive director at National Alliance on Mental Illness in Sonoma County says, “We tell people, when someone you love is diagnosed or you’re diagnosed, it’s suddenly like you’ve travelled to another country.”

Myth #3: It only affects young adults and adolescents.

Certain mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, often show up in teens and young adults, but mental illnesses can affect nearly anyone. Milbrath has worked with people as young as seven and many senior citizens.

Myth #4: People with a mental illness can’t contribute to society.

“One of the reasons we have that stereotype is because most people who have mental illness and recover, don’t disclose it for that very fear of experiencing prejudice and discrimination,” says Professor Bernice A. Pescosolido, Director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research. In reality, there are many individuals who have made great contributions to society while living with a mental illness, including President Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Myth #5: People with a mental illness are dangerous.

Research has shown that people with a mental illness are just as likely to commit acts of violence as people without a mental illness. Furthermore, people with mental illnesses are four times more likely than those without a disability to be victims of violence, according to a review published in The Lancet of 26 different studies. However, people with mental illnesses who are experiencing an active episode, depressive or psychotic, and also abuse drugs or alcohol, are more prone to violence.

Myth #6: You’re a bad person for judging people with a mental illness.

Pescosolido is an expert on mental illness stigma (a social marker that defines a person as less than “normal”). Yet, when she first began visiting psychiatric units, she was scared. Instead of being ashamed of her reaction, she grew from it.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of thinking that you don’t hold stereotypes because I think we all do,” says Pescosolido. “It’s a matter of whether or not you’re willing to get over them.”

Myth #7: You need to disclose your own mental illness to help battle stigma.

Some people who advocate against stigmatizing mental illness choose to disclose their personal battles to the world. That is not for everyone. Just like you probably wouldn’t tell a guy you have cancer on the first date, Pescosolido says the majority of people with a mental illness should be selective about whom they choose to tell. You can still fight stigma without outing yourself.



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Hughes K et al. “Prevalence and risk of violence against adults with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies”