Mental health can be a tricky subject. There are tons of myths running rampant out there confusing us, and mental illness can be confusing even if you do have some education about it. As a professional therapist, I find myself debunking mental health myths every single day with clients, family members, and even my personal friends. Today I want to share with you 12 of the most common myths about mental health, and shed a little light on the truth.
Myth 1: Kids get mental illnesses because of bad parenting.
Is it possible? Of course. Is it the norm? Nope. Many mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, have strong genetic components. Trauma can trigger mental illness as well, which may or may not have anything to do with the parents. Research shows that 50% of all lifelong mental illnesses start by age 14. Source: NAMI
Myth 2: Mental illness is caused by personal weakness.
No no no!!! Genetics, trauma, chronic stress, life experiences…. so many things factor into mental illness. Personality and feelings do not cause mental illness. But regardless of the cause, fighting through mental illness and seeking treatment takes great strength.
Myth 3: People with mental illnesses are dangerous.
Not true. The vast majority of people suffering from mental illnesses have never committed a violent crime and are not dangerous. In fact, only 3-5% of violent crimes are attributed to people with mental illness. And those with mental illnesses are actually 10 times more likely to become victims of crime than the general population, not the other way around. Source: MentalHealth.Gov
Myth 4: You don’t need therapy. You just need a pill to fix it.
Ugh, this is one of my biggest mental health pet peeves. Most mental illnesses are a combination of Nature and Nurture. In other words, it’s both genetics/biology and the person’s environment. Medication can be helpful with certain concerns, and there are cases where taking medications indefinitely are necessary. If your doctor has recommended psychotropic medication, obviously go with that advice over this blog. This is not medical advice. But most of the time, a medication’s main purpose is to get you in a clear and good enough state so that you can accomplish the work required to successfully complete therapy and improve your life for the long haul. Antidepressants are supposed to boost your mood and regulate certain neurotransmitters. But lifestyle changes like exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep, using healthy coping skills, eliminating chronic stressors, finding purpose in your activities, and positive relationships will help you maintain a fulfilling life for the long term, perhaps even allowing you to go off medication at some point. Antidepressants alone cannot do that. They change your brain chemicals. They don’t change your whole life.
Antidepressants change your brain chemicals. They don’t change your whole life.
Myth 5: A lot of people fake mental illness.
If you have a mental health diagnosis and people tell you to just “get over it,” this myth probably drives you crazy. It’s true, not everyone who says they are “depressed” or “Bipolar” truly has those diagnoses. The words can be misused, and that can contribute to negative stigma surround mental illness. But if someone truly does have a diagnosis, they are absolutely not faking it. It’s important to remember that not all symptoms are obvious to an untrained observer.
If you’re experiencing symptoms but aren’t sure if it’s a “real disorder,” there are ways to start evaluating that. If your feelings are circumstantial or fleeting, you could be experiencing normal moods considering the context. But maybe it’s more than that. Here are a few ways to tell the difference.
- You’re in a depressed or anxious mood more days than not
- Your symptoms interfere with your work or school (i.e. you’re not going to work)
- Your symptoms interfere with your personal relationships
- You have tried basic coping skills, like regular exercise, getting enough sunshine, a healthy diet, and positive social interactions, and nothing is helping.
- Your symptoms have persisted more than 6 months.
- You have occasional (or frequent) suicidal thoughts.
- You can’t identify specific triggers for your depression or anxiety.
If a few of these factors apply to you, it’s time to seek help from a professional therapist. Psychology Today is a great resource to find therapists in your area. You can use the search filters to find someone who specializes in what you’re looking for, takes your insurance, and more.
Myth 6: Mental illnesses are not real medical conditions.
Some mental illnesses are generally behavioral. But many are not. The brain of an addicted person literally becomes wired differently than the average brain. Depression can often be attributed to too low a level of Serotonin (a regulating brain chemical), while Schizophrenia is often caused by an extremely high level of Serotonin. Bipolar Disorder is highly genetic; you have a 50% chance of developing it if one of your parents has it. Here’s a fantastic diagram showing brain scans of people with various mental illnesses. One more example of how people with mental illnesses are not just “making it up.”
Myth 7: Mental illnesses are not curable.
So many people believe this lie. Some mental illnesses are difficult to cure, but can be effectively managed with the right combination of therapy and medication. I have known clients with very severe illnesses who have avoided serious incidents or inpatient treatment for decades. They live satisfying lives, with careers and families. It takes hard work on the part of the person with the illness and diligence on the part of the treatment providers, but it can absolutely be done.
Other mental illnesses are temporary by the very nature of the diagnostic criteria, and can absolutely be cured. Again, it often comes down to a quality treatment plan that includes various types of therapy and medication if necessary.
Myth 8: Mental illness is rare.
1 out of every 4 people in the United States today has suffered from a mental illness at some point, and 1 in 5 are struggling right now. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common, affecting 40 million people. That’s about 18% of the US general population.
In Canada, about 20% of the general population will experience a mental illness in their lifetimes. 5% have an anxiety disorder right now. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for both men and women between adolescence and young adult.
Myth 9: Therapy is all about discussing stuff from my childhood, so why bother?
Totally depends on what kind of therapist you go to. But that being said, there are few therapists out there who force you to lie on a couch and discuss your earliest memories of your mother. Many therapists today use some kind of integrative approach, meaning that they employ different techniques depending on what the client needs. If you want to focus on a specific situation, your therapist may focus on a solution with you and not dive into your childhood much at all. If you want to work through past trauma, your childhood might relate significantly. It all depends on what’s going on. But the vast majority of therapist do their best to help you with what you’re looking for, not what they personally want to do during your sessions.
Myth 10: If I admit I’m struggling, people will think I’m crazy.
If you don’t admit you’re struggling, perhaps no one will ever know, and you’ll never get help. Is that really better? But if you trust someone enough to share your struggles, I’m guessing they’ll want to help you get help. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy, it means you’re brave. Inspire.com has a list of online support groups through Mental Health America. Support Seekers is an online support group based in Canada. I’ve also found so many supportive communities through social media, people who are willing to open up, listen, and encourage one another, despite whatever other differences we may have.
Myth 11: Mental health professionals gouge suffering people to make money.
Totally untrue. Let me first differentiate between psychiatrists (medical doctors who specialize in mental illness), psychologists (hold doctoral degrees in psychology), and therapists (generally a mental health counselor or social worker, could have other specializations. All require a master’s degree). Psychiatrists make a lot more than psychologists, who make a lot more than master’s level therapists. But all three categories make up some of the lowest-paid professionals for their amount of education. In fact, you could manage a Taco Bell and make double what the average therapist makes.
In larger agencies and hospitals, where mental health professionals are employees, they make very little for the amount of stress and the workload that typically comes with the job. For therapists in private practice, remember that they’re also paying business costs. You may pay your therapist $100/hr, but they probably make less than half of that before taxes due to being a contractor with a business or running their own business. Insurance reimbursements typically pay back 60-70% of the service cost, so then the therapist takes their business expenses out of that lower rate and keeps what is left over. Many therapists work multiple jobs their entire career in order to support their families. At the end of the day, know this. I can’t vouch for every therapist out there, but I can say that they’re not in it to get rich.
Myth 12: I can’t help someone with a mental illness, only a doctor can.
YOU, friends and family, are the biggest help for someone with a mental illness. The average client sees their therapist once a week or every other week, and a psychiatrist every few months. But they see you every day. Even if they love their therapist, your influence is likely greater. You don’t have to be a professional, you just need to show encouragement. For a little education on how to best help your loved ones, here are some resources.
Al-Anon (family support for those struggling with addiction)
I hope this sheds a little light on mental health myths you might have heard. If you have questions on these myths or other ones you’ve heard, shoot us a comment below! You can also feel free to contact me, Laura, directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.