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13 Myths Surrounding Mental Illness

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Photo: Johannes Ahlmann/Flickr

In no particular order, here are 13 of the most widespread myths surrounding mental illness in the 21st Century.

1. Mental illness doesn't exist. Just because mental illnesses are invisible on the surface, it doesn't mean that they aren't real. We can't see gravity, either - does that mean that that's made up? Furthermore, through various brain image technology, it's actually now possible to observe differences in the brain between people with certain mental illnesses and people without them.

2. Mental illness is rare. On the contrary, approximately one in four people suffer from a mental illness.

3. You don't know anyone with a mental illness.
Again, since mental illness affects one in four, then unless you live by yourself on a raft in the middle of the ocean, then it's almost certain that you do.

4. If you have a mental illness, then it means you're crazy. No! If you have a mental illness, then all it means is that you have a mental illness - a condition that can be treated just like physical illnesses can.

5. Mental illnesses are lifelong and impossible to treat. I kind of gave the truth away in myth four, but it's worth emphasizing: treatments today are more refined than ever before, and as a result, most mental illnesses are able to be recovered from, or at the very least managed.

6. If someone has a mental illness, than they're to blame for it. While I do believe that sufferers need to take responsibility for their illness and be proactive in trying to recover, it's critical to note that absolutely anyone can fall victim to a mental illness. Mental illnesses tend to be caused by a combination of genetics, brain chemical imbalances, psychological trauma and environmental stresses; since so much of this is out of a person's control, then blaming them for developing a mental illness is extremely unfair.

7. Only people who are weak ask for help. It's really the complete opposite - it takes self-awareness to admit that you have a problem, and given the stigma surrounding mental illness, it takes a lot of courage to ask for support. And on a more fundamental level, seeking help is just the smart, logical thing to do. Just like physical illnesses, mental illnesses require treatment in order for the sufferer to recover - so if you want to get better and return to living a healthy life, then you have to get help. Otherwise your illness will always impair you.

8. People with a mental illness can "just get over it". Again, mental illnesses are illnesses. You can't "just get over them", in the same way you just can't get over a physical illness like cancer.

9. People with a mental illness are violent. This is nonsense perpetrated by the media and television shows. Numerous studies have shown this to be blatantly untrue. For example in the US, a nationwide study by NIMH showed that only 4% of violent crimes are committed by people with a diagnosed mental illness. Additionally, the study showed that people with a mental illness are 11 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population.

10. People with a mental illness are incompetent. Because mental illnesses are treatable, then most sufferers who are getting help are able to work and live productive lives. In fact, it's well known that depression rates are particularly high in the legal profession, which is proof that people with a mental illness can still be extremely high functioning. Furthermore, since mental illness affects one in four people, chances are that you work with one or multiple sufferers, even if you don't know it.

11. Mental illnesses don't affect teenagers - any problems they're experiencing is just part of going through puberty. Granted that one's adolescent years tend to be more of a roller coaster than most, but it's ludicrous to assume that this is the root of all their problems and that it's impossible for them to suffer from a mental illness. In fact, studies show that across Australia, the UK and the US, as many as one in five teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood - and that's just one of a myriad of mental illnesses.

12. People with a mental illness - particular those suffering from depression - are attention seekers or drama queens. In fact, it's usually the opposite, which is why the majority of sufferers hide their pain with a smile, and why their most common response to "how are you" is "I'm fine".

13. I can't do anything for someone with a mental illness. While it's true that you can't snap your fingers and make them recover, you can help immensely by being a good friend - by doing your best to understand them instead of judging them, by showing them respect, by listening to them when they need someone to talk to, and by putting your arm around them when they need your support.

Question for the day: What are some of the other mental illness myths you've heard?

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