Mental Health Misconceptions

As we approach World Mental Health Day on October 10, this edition of Medical Myths will focus on mental health.

Although there is increasing attention and research on the topic, many myths and misconceptions about mental health still exist.

Sadly, there is still a significant stigma attached to mental health conditions, largely dependent on old-fashioned thinking and outdated assumptions. As with many things in life, the more informed we are, the less likely we are to let myths color our opinions.

In the recent past, society shunned people with mental health conditions. Some believed that evil spirits or divine vengeance were responsible for mental illness. Although this mindset has been banished from society in most parts of the world, it still casts a long shadow.

As 2020 continues unabated, the world’s mental health has begun to take a beating. Addressing the lies surrounding our mental health is more pressing than ever.

Below, we explore 11 common misconceptions about mental health.

1- Mental Health Problems are Uncommon

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the above statement was false. Today, this statement is truer than, perhaps, it ever was.

In 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that “1 in 4 people in the world will suffer from a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives.”

Currently, 450 million people are facing such conditions. As the WHO explains, mental disorders are “among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.”

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders, affecting more than 264 million people globally in 2017. A more recent study, focused on the United States, concludes that the number of adults experiencing depression has tripled during the pandemic.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), another common mental disorder, affects an estimated 6.8 million adults in the United States, which is more than 3 in every 100 people.

2- Panic Attacks can be Fatal

Panic attacks are incredibly unpleasant, involving a racing heart and an overwhelming sense of dread. However, they may not be directly fatal.

It is worth noting, however, that a person having a panic attack may be more liable to crash. If someone is experiencing a panic attack or can sense one coming on, finding a safe place can help reduce the risk.

3- People with Mental Health Conditions Cannot Work

An old but persistent myth is that people with mental health problems cannot hold down a job or become useful members of the workforce. This is a complete lie.

It is true that someone with a particularly severe mental health condition may be unable to function regularly. However, the majority of people with mental health problems can be just as productive as people without mental health disorders.

A U.S. study published in 2014 investigated employment status according to mental illness severity. The authors found that, as expected, “Employment rates decreased with increasing mental illness severity.”

However, 54.5% of people with severe conditions were employed, compared with 75.9% of people without mental illness, 68.8% of people with mild mental illness, and 62.7% of people with moderate mental illness.

4- Mental Health Problems are a Sign of Weakness

Nothing is more accurate than saying that a broken leg is a sign of weakness. Mental health disorders are illnesses, not signs of weak character. Similarly, for example, people with depression cannot “snap out of it” any more than a person with diabetes or psoriasis can recover from their condition immediately.

If anything, the opposite is true: Fighting a mental health condition takes a lot of strength.

5- Only People Without Friends Need Therapists

There is a big difference between structured talking therapies and talking with friends. Both can help people with mental illness in different ways, but a trained therapist can solve problems constructively and in ways that even the best of friends can’t match.

Also, not everyone can fully open up to their near and dear ones. Therapy is confidential, objective, and completely person-centered, which is not usually possible in more informal interactions with untrained friends.

6- Mental Health Problems are Permanent

A mental health diagnosis is not necessarily a “life sentence.” Each person’s experience with mental illness is different. Some people may experience episodes, in between which they return to their version of “normal”. Others may find treatments—medications or talking therapies—that restore balance to their lives.

Some people may not feel like they have fully recovered from a mental illness, and some may experience progressively worse symptoms.

However, the take-home message is that many people will recover to a greater or lesser extent.

“The journey to full recovery takes time, but positive changes can happen all along the way.”

It’s also important to consider that “recovery” means different things to different people. Some people may see recovery as returning to exactly how they felt before symptoms started. For others, recovery can be relief from symptoms and a return to a satisfying life, however different it may be.

7- Addiction is a Lack of Willpower

This statement is not correct. Experts consider substance use disorders to be chronic illnesses.

A paper in Addictive Behavior Reports outlines a qualitative longitudinal study investigating the relationship between willpower and addiction recovery. The researchers found that lack of willpower was not the deciding factor when it came to beating addiction.

8- People with Schizophrenia have a Split Personality

This is a myth. Schizophrenia means “split mind,” which may explain the misunderstanding. However, when Eugen Bleuler coined the term in 1908, he was “attempting to capture the breakdown and breakdown of mind and behavior as the essence of the disorder.”

According to the WHO, schizophrenia is “characterized by disturbances in thinking, cognition, emotion, language, sense of self, and behavior.” These distortions can include hallucinations and delusions.

Schizophrenia is not the same as dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

9- Eating Disorders only Affect Females

There is a stereotype that eating disorders are the domain of young, white, wealthy women. However, they can affect anyone.

For example, one study that investigated eating disorder populations over a 10-year period found that they were changing. The most significant increases in prevalence occurred among men, people from low-income households, and people aged 45 years or older.

According to other research, men currently account for 10-25% of all cases of anorexia and bulimia nervosa, as well as 25% of all cases of eating disorders.

10- Eating Disorders are a Lifestyle Choice

This is a harmful myth. Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions, and, in extreme cases, they can be fatal.

11- All people with a Mental illness are Violent

This, of course, is a myth. Thankfully, as the world becomes more aware of mental health conditions, this misconception is slowly disappearing. Even individuals who are experiencing very serious conditions, such as schizophrenia, are mostly non-violent.

It is true that some people with certain mental illnesses can be violent and unpredictable, but they are in the minority.

The authors of a review that investigates the links between mental health and violence help explain why this myth has gained traction over the years.

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