We have learned so much about mental illness, its causes and its treatment, in the last 50 years. Yet there are common myths that persist. It is important that these myths be understood – and dismissed, according to NARSAD, the world’s largest charity dedicated to mental health research.
"Misconceptions about mental illness contribute to the stigma, which leads many people to be ashamed and prevents them from seeking help," says Constance Lieber, NARSAD President Emeritus.
Approximately 20 per cent of North Americans have a diagnosable mental illness.
Research shows that only about one-third of these individuals seek treatment.
Four of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental disorders.
Among developed nations, including Canada, major depression is the leading cause of disability.
Also near the top of these rankings are manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
NARSAD, previously known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, surveyed mental health professionals to identify the most common myths about mental illness. Here’s what they found:
Myth #1: Mental disorders are not true medical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
Fact: Brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are medical illnesses. Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for psychiatric disorders, and they can be treated effectively.
Myth #2: People with a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, are usually dangerous and violent.
Fact: Statistics show that the incidence of violence in people who have a brain disorder is not much higher than it is in the general population. Those suffering from a psychosis such as schizophrenia are more often frightened, confused and despairing than violent. The Canadian Mental Health Association provides a broader look at the issue.
Myth #3: Mental illness is the result of bad parenting.
Fact: Most experts agree that a genetic susceptibility, combined with other risk factors, leads to a psychiatric disorder. In other words, mental illnesses have a physical cause.
Myth #4: Depression results from a personality weakness or character flaw, and people who are depressed could just snap out of it if they tried hard enough.
Fact: Depression has nothing to do with being lazy or weak. It results from changes in brain chemistry or brain function, and medication and/or therapy often help people to recover.
Myth #5: Schizophrenia means split personality, and there is no way to control it.
Fact: Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that robs people of their ability to think clearly and logically. The estimated 2.5 million North Americans with schizophrenia have symptoms ranging from social withdrawal to hallucinations and delusions. Medication has helped many of these individuals to lead fulfilling, productive lives.
Myth #6: Depression is a normal part of the aging process.
Fact: Depression is not a normal part of aging. Signs of depression in older people include a loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbances and lack of energy. Depression in the elderly is often undiagnosed, and it is important for seniors and their family members to recognize the problem and seek professional help.
Myth #7: Depression and other illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, do not affect children or adolescents. Any problems they have are just a part of growing up.
Fact: Children and adolescents can develop severe mental illnesses. In North America, roughly one in every 10 children and adolescents has a mental disorder severe enough to cause impairment. However, only about 20 per cent of these children receive needed treatment. Left untreated, these problems can get worse. Anyone talking about suicide should be taken very seriously.
Myth #8: If you have a mental illness, you can will it away. Being treated for a psychiatric disorder means an individual has in some way failed or is weak.
Fact: A serious mental illness cannot be willed away. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away, either. It takes courage to seek professional help.
Myth #9: Addiction is a lifestyle choice and shows a lack of willpower. People with a substance abuse problems are morally weak or bad.
Fact: Addiction generally results from changes in brain chemistry. It has nothing to do with weakness. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health offers a wealth of information on this topic.
"These misconceptions can do irreparable harm to people with legitimate illnesses who should and can be treated," said Dr. Herbert Pardes, President of NARSAD's Scientific Council.
Mental Health Commission of Canada