Mental Illness Myths You Shouldn’t Believe

Most of us deal with occasional mental exhaustion through activities we love and use breathing techniques throughout the day, but for those with a mental illness, things are a lot more challenging. And these conditions are more common than you think. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 1 in 5 Americans has a mental illness, which is about 43.8 million people. While there are excellent treatments available for those who have a condition affecting their mental health, it’s still widely misunderstood by the general public.

Here are 10 mental illness myths you need to stop believing immediately.

1. Mentally ill people are usually violent

businessman shouting on the phone with gestures in the car

Mental illness and violence do not go hand-in-hand. |

Those who have a mental illness may experience a host of uncomfortable symptoms, but the notion they’re more violent than anyone else is unproven. According to Harvard Health Publications, a 2006 national survey found 60% of Americans thought those with schizophrenia were likely to act violent, and 32% thought those with depression also had violent tendencies. Research shows most people who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder are not violent, though, and those who have reacted in violent ways before may have done so for a number of reasons unrelated to their mental illness.

While findings have varied from study to study, the researchers featured in this story lean toward the conclusion that individuals who have a mental illness and have also been violent are likely influenced by other factors. Family history, substance abuse, and socioeconomic status all play a role just as much as the illness.

2. Depression is always linked with suicide

man lost in depression

Depression and suicide don’t always go together. |

According to Scientific American, a depression diagnosis doesn’t mean the person is thinking about committing suicide. Depression is also not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Though some people experience severe symptoms, others do not. Mild to moderate depression isn’t considered a risk factor for suicide at all, the story says, though moderate depression can turn severe over time if left untreated. In short, it’s a lot more complicated than you might first think.

3. Mental illness is a lifelong disability

Sad teenage girl looking out the window

Mental illness doesn’t have to last a lifetime. |

Some people certainly live with their mental illness for their entire life, but for others, it can come and go and even disappear. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder is a good example of a mental disorder known to fluctuate, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This mental illness occurs in some women during the days prior to their menstrual cycle. Women with PMDD will experience mood disturbances during this time up until menstruation begins, and then symptoms of the disorder fade until the following cycle.

Additionally, researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia reviewed two studies and found hopeful information about bipolar disorder. They found young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder may outgrow it by age 30. It’s thought this could be because the prefrontal cortex of the brain does not fully mature until age 25.

4. Mental illness can only be controlled with both medication and therapy

Man comforting his sad mourning friend

You can manage your mental illness in a variety of ways. |

We all can appreciate how far modern medicine has come and what options are available to us, but not everyone with a mental illness wants, or even needs, a prescription. The National Alliance on Mental Illness explains antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotic meds can be particularly effective for some, while cognitive behavioral therapy or even light therapy may be more successful for others.

In some cases, therapy is actually thought to do even more good than medication. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration explains those who have anxiety disorders may benefit from medications for keeping symptoms at bay, but the meds themselves won’t help them address the reasons behind their anxiety. Therapy is recommended in conjunction with medication in this case.

5. Only adults have mental illnesses

group of children outside looking at a bug they caught in a jar

Mental illness can affect children as well. |

Mental illness doesn’t just strike adults — children can develop it, too. WebMD reports nearly 20% of American children have a diagnosable mental illness. And for many of them, it’s serious enough to interfere with their everyday life.

Children are more prone to anxiety disorders, disruptive behavior disorders, pervasive development disorders, eating disorders, and mood disorders, the story explains. It’s also not unusual for a child to have more than one mental illness.

6. Most mental illnesses can be willed away

woman consoling her sad friend

You cannot will away your mental illness. |

Because many mental illnesses show few physical symptoms, it can be hard for others to sympathize and fully understand the extent of the illness. This can cause some to assume those with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder can just pick themselves up when they’re feeling down, or manage their symptoms purely through diet and exercise. Like any type of illness, though, mental health issues should be addressed by a doctor and treated properly. Psychologist Deborah Serani tells Psych Central, “Despite research showing how mental illness is a real medical illness, society continues to stigmatize people who have them.”

While some lifestyle changes can certainly help, you can’t convince yourself to no longer have a mental illness. If this were the case, there would be far fewer cases. And, while your friends can help you talk through some issues and make you feel relief temporarily, there’s no substitute for talking to a trained professional.

7. Electroshock therapy is painful and inhumane

man talking to his therapist

Electroshock therapy is actually still used today — and it’s different than you think. |

If you’ve only seen electroshock therapy in the movies, then what you’re imagining is much more terrifying than what actually occurs during the procedure. Contrary to the negative stigma, electroconvulsive therapy can actually greatly benefit those with severe mental illnesses. Mayo Clinic explains small electric currents pass through the brain during the procedure, and this triggers a minor seizure. While early treatments using this method were dangerous and came with severe side effects like memory loss and fractured bones, the procedures today are much more controlled and can really help those who haven’t had success with other types of treatment.

The most likely candidates for electroconvulsive therapy are those with severe depression or depression with psychosis, severe mania, and catatonia (a symptom of schizophrenia). Though medical professionals aren’t entirely sure why electroshock therapy works, they know seizures make chemical changes in the brain, which could be one explanation. They also recommend most individuals go through multiple sessions for the best results.

8. Addiction is voluntary behavior

woman looking upset in her office

No one wants to have an addiction. | Thinkstock

Addiction can be difficult to understand from an outsider’s perspective. Many of us wonder how any addict can continue their harmful behavior even after they’ve seen how their actions hurt their friends and family. It’s important to remember addiction is a mental illness. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction to drugs changes the brain, which can distort the person’s priorities and make them continue to use instead of seek help.

While the initial drug use is a choice, the behavior becomes less of a choice the more it occurs. If they’re repeatedly taken, then self-control isn’t as easy to maintain. Studies on the brain have even shown how addiction can physically alter areas that are used for judgment, decision making, learning, and memory.

9. Stress is the main cause of mental illness

husband and wife working on finances with calculator and laptop

Stress doesn’t help, but it’s usually not the main cause. |

Stress can take a serious toll on our bodies, both physically and mentally. Some of us experience depression after months of severe stress, so we assume it’s always to blame for more severe psychological problems. While stress can trigger mental illness, it’s usually not the only cause. So, what’s really to blame? It’s a complicated question, but biological, psychological, and environmental factors are all part of the equation.

According to WebMD, genetics can play a role in many cases of mental illness. This is not to say that because your mother has depression, you definitely will too, however. Most experts agree genetics may impact how susceptible you are to mental illness, and then other factors, such as stress, trauma, or lifestyle, can trigger the illness later on.

10. Teens are at the greatest risk for suicide

young teens playing videogames outdoors

Suicide risk increases with age. |

We may associate mental illness with our brooding teen years, but in actuality, teens and young adults are not at the highest risk for suicide. According to the Population Reference Bureau, suicide risk actually increases with age. Medical professionals think the elderly have a high rate because of their lack of social interaction as well as the trauma of losing spouses and friends. While suicide rates in older people have declined since 1999, they’re still soaring above the younger generations.

With this in mind, it’s important for anyone who’s at risk for suicide to maintain social relationships with neighbors, friends, families, and colleagues. Special counseling services and telephone hotlines are also available.