10 Myths and facts about mental illness

You’ve heard the myths, now here are some facts about mental illness

Coloured image of bald young man kneeling on the beach with a noose beside him
Mental illness won’t affect me

Have you ever read that people with schizophrenia are violent, dangerous or unpredictable? Heard someone say that mental illness is all in your head? Or that only certain people get a mental illness? As a former mental health ward manager in one of London’s busiest mental health settings, I’ve heard many myths about mental illness. Here are my top 10 mental illness myths, together with the facts

  1. Mental illness won’t affect me. FACT – Mental illnesses are surprisingly common; they don’t discriminate and can affect anyone. In fact, I think most of us know someone who has a mental health problem.Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. In England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week, mind.org.uk.
  2. People with mental illness are just weak. FACT: Mental health disorders are not a personal choice, nor are they caused by personal weakness. Mental illness might occur due to a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, or social factors. Research has shown genetic and biological factors are associated with schizophrenia, depression, and alcoholism. Social influences, such as loss of a loved one or a job, can also contribute to the development of various disorders.
  3. You can tell when someone has a mental illness. FACT: Many people think you can see when someone has a mental illness — maybe they think that a mentally ill person looks different, acts crazy, or always comes across as depressed or anxious. This is not true. Anyone can have a mental illness, even if they look completely normal, seem happy, or have a lot of money, a great job and a big house, redbookmag.com
  4. People don’t recover from mental illnesses. FACT: Recovery is absolutely possible in some mental illnesses. As yet, there is no cure for mental illness, but there is recovery. Recovering from mental illness includes not only getting better, but achieving a meaningful and satisfying life. Indeed, lots of people with mental health problems still work, have families and lead fulfilling lives. Being told that you have a mental illness is not the end of the world. With help and support, people can recover and achieve their life’s ambitions.
  5. People with a mental illness can’t tolerate the stress of work. FACT: With one in four people affected by mental illness, you probably work with someone with a mental health problem. Many people can and do work with mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, with little impact on productivity. However, like any illness, there are times when the person isn’t able to work due to the severity of the condition. FACT: According to MentalHealth.gov people with a mental health illness are just as productive as other employees. Employers who’ve hired people with a mental illness report good punctuality, attendance, and motivation, good work, and on par with or better than other employees.
  6. People with schizophrenia are violent. FACT: Mainstream media has been guilty of regularly portraying people with mental illness as violent. In truth, this is rarely the case. People with a mental illness are much more likely to be the victim of violence. While research has shown there is an increased risk of violence in those living with paranoid schizophrenia and anti-social personality disorder, in general, mental health sufferers are more at risk of being attacked or harming themselves. Official statistics consistently show that most violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who don’t have mental health problems.
  7. People with a mental illness are lazy and should just snap out of it. FACT: This is certainly not true and there are lots of reasons why some people might look lazy. Many people with a mental illness experience fatigue and lethargy as part of their illness or from side effects of their medication. This is not laziness. People can’t just snap out of a mental illness if they try hard enough, and many often need help to get better. This help might include medication, counselling and support from their care team, carers, family and friends and their workplace.
  8. People with mental illness rely on medication. FACT: Medication can be used on a short-term basis, especially for depression and anxiety, but for other mental illnesses, medication is used long-term. Mental illness is not like a physical illness because it can’t always be treated with one single medication. Often, a group of medications is needed for someone with a mental health disorder i.e. antipsychotics and antidepressants together with antiemetic medication to treat the side effects of antipsychotics.
  9. Mental illness is “all in your head. It’s not a real medical problem. FACT: There’s still a common belief that someone with anxiety can “just calm down” or someone with depression can “snap out of it, if they try”, like they can pick how and when to have an episode come or go. That’s simply not true. There are psychological and real physical symptoms. Someone who has depression may see changes in appetite, libido and sleep pattern and someone with anxiety might feel breathless, have palpitations and feel nauseous or dizzy. Someone with schizophrenia might be lethargic with low motivation due negative symptoms or side effects of medication.
  10. Asking someone about suicidal thoughts and feelings will make them do it. FACT: If someone says they are thinking about suicide, it can be very distressing. You might not know what to do to help, whether to be concerned or your talking about it will make the situation worse. However, asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings, Mayoclinic.org.
Coloured image of white female lying on the floor with tablets all around her
Just ask someone “Are you having thoughts of suicide?”

Unfortunately these myths about mental illness often contribute to the stigma and discrimination that many people still face. It’s so important that we challenge these myths so we can understand the real facts around a mental illness.

If you’ve had any of the feeling or thoughts as described above, please find someone to talk to. You can always talk to your GP in confidence, or look up your local branch of the Samaritans. Many people experience mental illness and you don’t have to suffer alone.

Over to you

Big red question mark with white character man leaning against it.

Have you ever had to, or how would you challenge a friend or family member about these myths? Would you feel comfortable about calling people out, or would you just ignore them? If you have questions about any of the above, I’m happy to answer, and I’m always willing to offer support and information.

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