Myths About Mental Illness

Myth: People can control their symptoms with sheer willpower.

As clinician Julie Hanks, LCSW, said, “Telling someone struggling with depression to ‘cheer up’ or telling an individual with an anxiety disorder to ‘stop worrying so much’ is like telling a person with diabetes to simply ‘lower your blood sugar level.’”

Believing that someone can control their illness isn’t just unhelpful; it “may create additional layers of pain and shame when the person suffering fails to make themselves ‘feel better,’” she said.

Myth: People have a physical illness, but people are their mental illness.

This inaccurate belief actually makes it difficult for people to distinguish between their identity and their illness, said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and professor in Pasadena, Calif. And this can sabotage their recovery.

For instance, if an individual thinks “I am OCD,” they’ll have a tough time imagining that someday they won’t struggle with obsessions, Howes said.

“With one in four people experiencing a mental illness in their lifetime, it’s important [people] know their identity is much greater than a simple label or diagnosis,” he said. That’s why in graduate school Howes and his classmates were taught to say a “man with depression” instead of “a depressive” or a “woman with schizophrenia,” instead of “a schizophrenic.”

Remember that “You aren’t your diagnosis, you are a complex, vital person coping with an illness,” Howes said.

Myth: Bad parenting causes mental illness.

Even educated and experienced professionals make the mistake of pointing the finger at parents, according to Ashley Solomon, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who blogs at Nourishing the Soul. “With most mental health issues, we can’t easily point to sun exposure or an extra chromosome to explain why a particular person is suffering,” she said.

So we focus on what’s at the forefront: Parents who might be struggling to parent their kids, she said. Families can play a role in mental illness. “Certainly we know that things like abuse and neglect literally change our brain chemistry, and can prime us for future mental health issues,” Solomon said.

But blaming parents “is reductive and often serves only to alienate the people that could be an individual’s greatest support,” she said.

A single factor doesn’t cause mental illness, she said. Instead, a complex combination of contributing factors, including biology, genetics and environment, does.

Myth: Medication is the only solution for mental illness.

For some mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, medication is a critical part of treatment. But for all mental illnesses a comprehensive approach is key.

“Medications work on one aspect of our bodies — neurotransmitters — but can’t make up for major problems in areas of nutrition, sleep, muscle tension, physical alignment, relationship strain, and so on,” Solomon said.

This is why psychotherapy, lifestyle changes and some alternative treatments are important for managing mental illness and leading a fulfilling life, she said.

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