Myths about mental illness that make matters worse
A shocking half of Americans are diagnosed with a mental disorder at some point in their lives. One in 4 had a debilitating mental health problem in the past year, which is twice as many as those who had the flu. Now with so many suffering, perhaps Americans are changing their attitudes about mental illness and getting over the antiquated stigma.
Then and now
In the past, myths made matters worse for everyone. Stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness led to social, educational and employment exclusion.
Many people with mental illness are simply having ordinary reactions to extraordinary situations, but are labeled, medicated and stigmatized for being human. Some are going through a difficult time in their lives. Others are just people struggling with their disability and trying to survive. Both the acutely and chronically ill need support and understanding to recover and lead healthy lives.
Part of understanding mental illness is forgetting preconceived notions about it and treating everyone with equal respect and kindness. Getting to know individual people through interaction provides more insight than learning about individual illnesses. With greater understanding comes less fear, and less fear means less stigma.
Past myths perpetuated many fearful notions about mentally ill persons, such as they must be somehow weak, violent or destined to become homeless. These are simply not true.
Here are three things that are true, though, based upon current research.
First, people don’t become mentally ill by choice. They are not weak, defective, evil or lazy. Most have suffered some form of abuse, neglect, maltreatment, violence and/or misfortune, which was out of their control. Others may have a genetic predisposition or unknown cause of their difficulty. In any case, they cannot simply “snap out of it” at will. Treatment requires a lot of supportive care and other modalities that help heal old wounds, treat current conditions and foster healthy lifestyles.
Second, there is no reason to fear that the mentally ill person will “suddenly snap,” have “an outburst,” or act more violently than anyone else might. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violent crimes were linked to mental illness. In fact, people who are mentally ill are at far greater risk for being victims of violence than being violent toward others. A study analyzing current research revealed that the mentally ill have a 289 percent higher chance of experiencing violence than those without disability.
Third, mental illness does not cause homelessness, but homelessness can cause mental illness, especially depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Even so, only a minority of homeless is mentally ill, and the majority of mentally ill are not homeless. If they were, half of Americans would become homeless. Factors that actually do cause homelessness include sociodemographic factors, economic hardship and substance use. Once homeless, it is hard to survive, let alone recover.
Those with mental illness have inner strength and resilience, and many have endured cruelty that those without it do not. With half of the U.S. population suffering from mental illness, Americans realize that it is time to let go of the fear and stigma, and start helping one another. With proper treatment and support, most people with mental illness can recover and share their resilience, strength, wisdom and gifts with others. Maybe they are just what the world has been missing.
The Sovereign Health Group treats individuals with mental health problems, substance use and dual diagnosis. We use highly specialized neuropsychiatric assessment and treatment to provide the support patients need to recover from trauma and/or addiction, and all associated consequences. We also provide continuing support and aftercare with online access to educational resources, health information and other opportunities. To find out more about our specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource, and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.