Around one in five Americans has or has had some form of mental health difficulty, and one in 20 lives with a serious mental illness—a condition like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder that is what most people think of when they describe someone as mentally ill. Unfortunately, despite how common the experience is, myths and stigma around mental illness still persist. These myths can make it difficult for mental illness to be recognized, and can create obstacles for someone who is mentally ill to seek appropriate, or any treatment.
Possibly one of the most prevalent myths, and one of the biggest sources of the stigma, is the idea that people with a mental illness are acting out or seeking attention. This is a charge levied at people who are mentally ill but don’t display the symptoms that are part of how the mental illness is portrayed in the media, and also against people who are displaying the classic symptoms, if they haven’t received a formal diagnosis and in some cases even if they have. This can lead to a feeling by sufferers that mental illness is a sign of personal weakness rather than something organically wrong, or that they need to keep their sense of their condition private.
That’s not the only problem caused by the mental illness stigma. The association of mental disorders with violence is not merely incorrect, it can lead to discrimination against people who have mental health conditions and an unwillingness to provide them with necessary accommodations. And this too can make it difficult for people to get the treatment they need, as they fear being feared if it should become known, or being overlooked for not being violent.
There are several other pervasive myths about mental illness:
- Mental illness only strikes adults. It’s true that in some cases the symptoms are different, or clearer, in adults, and some forms of mental illness are less common in children, but mental health is a lifelong concern
- "Mental illness" is a term for non-conformity, applied to people who refuse to fall in line. This is a common portrayal of mental illness in movies and on TV: the supposedly insane person who sees things the way the really are. While it is true that the concept has been used this way in some times and places, it is also true that there are detectable neurochemical differences in the brains of people with mental illness compared to people without.
- Medication deadens you. This is related to the previous myth, and it too has a small grain of truth. Anti-psychotics, for instance, to tend to turn down the intensity of the world, because that is a symptom of psychosis. Antidepressants can have lack of affect as a side effect, but that’s not how drugs are supposed to work, and is something patients should discuss with their doctors.
- The mentally ill are violent. In fact, the mentally ill are four times as likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes.
The important things to remember about mental illnesses are that they are real and they are caused by problems in the brain. A mental disorder is not always something someone is making up, and it’s not something they can just snap out of. A person with a mental condition needs treatment, and treatment is available.