COLUMN: Let’s Talk Mental Health – Myths and misconceptions

Let’s talk about some of the common myths and misconceptions about mental illness that contribute to the stigma that surrounds these very common illnesses.

Believe it or not, some people still see depression and anxiety as character flaws and believe that people should just ‘snap out of it’. Research shows that depression is not laziness or weakness and anxiety is not a character flaw. Mental illness results from changes in brain chemistry or brain function. Therapy and/or medication promote recovery.

Many people don’t understand that mental illness isn’t a single, rare disorder.

Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, addiction disorders and impulse control disorders are all different categories of separate mental illnesses, each with its own symptoms, traits, and underlying causes. It is true that each illness involves brain chemistry gone awry, which affects things like mood and perception, but we should remember that each illness has its own causes, features, and approaches to effective treatment.

Another false belief is that people with a mental illness lack intelligence. Realistically, intelligence has nothing to do with it. Many people with mental disorders are brilliant, creative, and productive and some people with mental disorders are not. Some mental illnesses may make it difficult to remember facts or get along with others. Overall, levels of intelligence among people with mental illness parallels the patterns of the mentally healthy population.

Don’t believe the misconception that that people never recover from their mental illnesses. Modern treatments are more numerous and more sophisticated than ever and researchers continue to develop new treatments. Thanks to recent advances, many people can recover from mental illness and lead healthy, normal lives. Another popular misconception is that electroconvulsive therapy is painful and barbaric but ECT is among the most effective treatments for people who are debilitated by depression so severe that medications aren’t sufficiently helpful.

If we think that people with mental illness are ‘psycho’, mad, or dangerous, and should be locked away, we’re very wrong. Most people living with mental illness cope with depression and anxiety. Their feelings and behaviours often negatively affect their lives but their normal day-to-day activities are just like those of healthy people. A related myth says that all people with schizophrenia are violent but people with mental illness actually cause very little violence. Hollywood and modern media often portray mentally ill people as dangerous. Most often, people living with mental illness are the victims of violence, not the perpetrators.

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A common workplace misconception is that mentally ill people shouldn’t work, as they will lower workplace morale. However, we know that most people with mental illness can and do function appropriately in the workplace. They don’t miss any more workdays because of their health than people with chronic physical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. The real problem is the prejudice against hiring people with mental illness, which leaves them isolated, adds to their stress, and makes their recovery more difficult.

People often ask…

Q. Aren’t we diagnosing too many children with mental illness? Aren’t children’s problems just part of growing up or the result of poor parenting?

A. Sadly, the reality is that one in five children and youth struggle with real mental health issues. We know that a genetic predisposition can be among the causes of mental illness and that 70 percent of adult mental illness begins during childhood or adolescence, including depression, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders. Mental health disorders in children are caused by biology, environment, or a combination of both.

They can be caused by genetics or biological factors such as an imbalance in brain chemicals or prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs. Mental illness in children and adolescents can also be the result of abusive or neglectful treatment or stressful events.

Fortunately, most youth who receive treatment improve significantly and fairly rapidly, often requiring fewer than twelve counselling sessions and sometimes shorter courses of appropriate medications.