Wow. There are a lot of mental health related months, weeks, and days. But this is a good thing. It needs a spotlight.
In 2014, there were an estimated 9.8 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with SMI (Serious Mental Illness). This number represented 4.2% of all U.S.
And that’s just the folks who have been identified as having SMI. I suspect that millions more are untreated, undiagnosed. That means that if you have 500 Facebook friends, at least 21 of them have a mental illness, which means everybody knows somebody whether they know it or not.
SMI is defined by the National Institute for Mental Health as the following :
- A mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders);
- Diagnosable currently or within the past year;
- Of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria specified within the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV); and,
- Resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
There are so many issues facing people with mental illness. The availability of treatment is at the top, but so is stigmatization. Here are common myths/stigmas.
Ten Common Myths
Here are ten common myths about mental illnesses.
Myth #1: Mental illnesses aren’t real illnesses.
Fact: The words we use to describe mental illnesses have changed greatly over time. What hasn’t changed is the fact that mental illnesses are not the regular ups and downs of life. Mental illnesses create distress, don’t go away on their own, and are real health problems with effective treatments. When someone breaks their arm, we wouldn’t expect them to just “get over it.” Nor would we blame them if they needed a cast, sling, or other help in their daily life while they recovered.
Myth #2: Mental illnesses will never affect me.
Fact: All of us will be affected by mental illnesses. Researchers estimate that as many as one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness at some point in their life. You may not experience a mental illness yourself, but it’s very likely that a family member, friend, or co-worker will experience challenges.
Myth #3: Mental illnesses are just an excuse for poor behaviour.
Fact: It’s true that some people who experience mental illnesses may act in ways that are unexpected or seem strange to others. We need to remember that the illness, not the person, is behind these behaviours. No one chooses to experience a mental illness. People who experience a change in their behaviour due to a mental illness may feel extremely embarrassed or ashamed around others. It’s also true that people with a history of a mental illness are like anyone else: they may make poor choices or do something unexpected for reasons unrelated to symptoms of their illness.
Myth #4: Bad parenting causes mental illnesses.
Fact: No one factor can cause mental illnesses. Mental illnesses are complicated conditions that arise from a combination of genetics, biology, environment, and life experiences. Family members and loved ones do have a big role in support and recovery.
Myth #5: People with mental illnesses are violent and dangerous.
Fact: Some people try to predict violence so they know what to avoid. However, the causes of violence are complicated. Researchers agree that mental illnesses are not a good predictor of violence. In fact, if we look at mental illnesses on their own, people who experience a mental illness are no more violent than people without a mental illness.Excluding people from communities is linked to violence. And people with mental illnesses are often among those who are excluded. It’s also important to note that people who experience mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than to be violent.
Myth #6: People don’t recover from mental illnesses.
Fact: People can and do recover from mental illnesses. Today, there are many different kinds of treatments, services, and supports that can help. No one should expect to feel unwell forever. The fact is, people who experience mental illnesses can and do lead productive, engaged lives. They work, volunteer, or contribute their unique skills and abilities to their communities. Even when people experience mental illnesses that last for a long time, they can learn how to manage their symptoms so they can get back to their goals. If someone continues to experience many challenges, it may be a sign that different approaches or supports are needed.
Myth #7: People who experience mental illnesses are weak and can’t handle stress.
Fact: Stress impacts well-being, but this is true for everyone. People who experience mental illnesses may actually be better at managing stress than people who haven’t experienced mental illnesses. Many people who experience mental illnesses learn skills like stress management and problem-solving so they can take care of stress before it affects their well-being. Taking care of yourself and asking for help when you need it are signs of strength, not weakness.
Myth #8: People who experience mental illnesses can’t work.
Fact: Whether you realize it or not, workplaces are filled with people who have experienced mental illnesses. Mental illnesses don’t mean that someone is no longer capable of working. Some people benefit from changes at work to support their goals, but many people work with few supports from their employer. Most people who experience serious mental illnesses want to work but face systemic barriers to finding and keeping meaningful employment.
Myth #9: Kids can’t have a mental illness like depression. Those are adult problems
Fact: Even children can experience mental illnesses. In fact, many mental illnesses first appear when a person is young. Mental illnesses may look different in children than in adults, but they are a real concern. Mental illnesses can impact the way young people learn and build skills, which can lead to challenges in the future. Unfortunately, many children don’t receive the help they need.
Myth #10: Everyone gets depressed as they grow older. It’s just part of the aging process.
Fact: Depression is never an inevitable part of aging. Older adults may have a greater risk of depression because they experience so many changes in roles and social networks. If an older adult experiences depression, they need the same support as anyone else.
These myths—and many more—exclude people with mental illnesses from our communities and create barriers to well-being. If we want to reduce the impact of mental illnesses on our communities, we need to learn the facts and start with our own assumptions and behaviours.
Stigma limits a person’s ability to:
- get and keep a job
- fit in at school without being bullied
- find a safe place to live
- attend college or university
- receive adequate health care (including treatment for substance use and mental health problems) and other support
- be accepted by their family, friends and community
- find and make friends or have other long-term relationships
- obtain insurance or loans
- volunteer within their community
- take part in social activities
Prejudice and discrimination often become internalized by people with mental health and substance use problems. This may lead us to self-stigmatize, meaning we:
- believe the negative things that other people and the media say about us
- have lower self-esteem because we feel guilt and shame
Prejudice and discrimination contribute to people with mental health and substance use problems keeping their problems a secret.
As a result:
- we avoid getting the help we need
- our mental health or substance use problems are less likely to get better, and in many cases get worse
- we may become isolated, depressed and are at an increased risk of suicide
- youth may experience increased drug abuse, suicide attempts and teen pregnancy
- we may lose hope in our ability to recover
This myth that we all get depressed eventually is important to consider. I’ve seen statistics that say that 1 in 4 people experience mental illness at some point. But I don’t see it that way. 25% of the world is not mentally ill, folks. Yes, we all experience the occasional blues, but that is not clinical depression. Many of us exhibit some obsessive compulsive tendencies, but that is not obsessive compulsive disorder. Many of us experience the occasional mood swing, but that is not bipolar affective disorder. When you say you have any mental illness but don’t meet the diagnostic requirements, you belittle those who do. You’re saying, look at me, I get a little anal retentive about the dishes and I can still function, why can’t you? I struggle with anxiety, but I meditated and it went away, you don’t need drugs, just do what I did. Or I know what you’re going through, I was so happy yesterday, and now I want to eat a lot of ice cream because I had a rough day. Or, I’ve suffered from mental illness just like you, and it wasn’t so bad, and I got better. No, you do not know what it’s like. 4.2% is a lot of people, but relatively speaking, it’s almost no people at all.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’m not aware of having been the victim of stigma. I surround myself with understanding/supportive people. I’m also a very high functioning bipolar. If I ever had a breakdown which greatly impacted my job, then perhaps it might be different. But when things are looking bad, I communicate with my employer. HR departments understand the law and the protections. Bipolar is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), just like any other disability. The law was designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in hiring, job assignments, promotions, firing, pay, layoffs, benefits and other employment-related activities. I can’t say whether this fights stigma directly, but it does prevent a person with a mental illness from being treated unfairly because of it.
I’ve committed myself to fighting stigma over the last year. I’ve taken a personal risk in doing so, but awareness is key. Those of you who know me can say you know someone with a mental illness. You can see that the stigmas are baseless in many cases. But I acknowledge that I am the beneficiary of good employment with good insurance. I might look a lot different without that. I must ask, would I be looked at the same if I didn’t have it so good? Would you want me working for you? Would you feel comfortable with me around your kids? And if I were single, would you want to be involved with me? I have nothing but sympathy for those who cannot get the treatment they need to function. Nearly half of people with a mental illness are untreated. Many of them are in prison. Many are drug addicts and alcoholics. Many are unemployable.
So what can you do? Make yourself aware is the starting point.