10 Myths and facts about mental illness

As a former mental health nurse and ward manager for many years in East London’s busiest mental health settings I was used to the many misconceptions people (including carers, visitors, family and friends) had. Here are my top 10.

  1. Mental illness won’t affect me. FACT – Mental illnesses are surprisingly common; they do not discriminate—they can affect anyone. 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 is a combination of biological, psychological, and 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. The illness might not go away forever but lots of people with mental health problems still work, have families and lead full lives. Recovering from mental illness includes not only getting better, but achieving a meaningful and satisfying life. 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 mental health issues can’t 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 health issues, 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.
  6. People with schizophrenia are violent. FACT: Modern media has been guilty of regularly portraying people with mental illness as violent. In truth, this is rarely the case. People with mental health problems 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 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 mental health problems are lazy and should just snap out of it. FACT: This is certainly not true. There’s lots reasons why some people might look lazy as many experience fatigue and lethargy as side effects of their medication but this is not laziness. People cannot just snap out of a mental health problem and lots of people may need help to get better. This help might include medication, counselling and lots of support from their care team, friends and family.
  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” like they can pick how and when to have an episode come or go. That’s simply not true. There are very 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.
  10. Asking someone about suicidal thoughts and feelings might 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 take talk of suicide seriously, or if 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).

Unfortunately these myths about mental health problems often contribute to the stigma 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 have had any of the feeling or 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. You don’t have to suffer alone.

Do you have any questions about any of the above? I am always willing to offer support and information.

Have you ever had to and how would you challenge a friend or family member about these myths?