Why Do Myths About Mental Illness Persist?

Why Do Myths About Mental Illness Persist?

Why Do Myths About Mental Illness Persist?


Despite the efforts of many to dispel the stigma associated with mental illness, common misperceptions and stereotypes continue to inform our systems, our media, our societies and ourselves.  These beliefs can create significant barriers to seeking and receiving appropriate treatment and support.


Here is a list of false beliefs about mental illness that continue to permeate our culture and internalized thoughts.  


Mental Illness Won’t Affect Me


1 in 5 Canadians will experience a serious mental health issue.  5 in 5 Canadians experience mental health. Mental Illness does not discriminate.  We are all vulnerable as a result of multiple risk factors including genetics, biology, environment and life experiences.  A single traumatic event, significant life changes or chronic stress over time can cause changes to the structure and function of our brains. These changes can cause the symptoms of mental illness to emerge.


Different Races Are More Prone to Mental Illness


No race is more or less susceptible.  Awareness of mental illness and its causes can vary amongst groups.  Cultural influences may affect how symptoms are interpreted and might prevent a person from seeking help.


Mental Illness Is Not a “Real” Illness


Mental Illness is a disease that affects the brain.  Brain scans such as PET, CT and MRI show differences in the structure and function of the brains of mentally well individuals and those with mental illness.  These changes can affect the way a person thinks, feels and acts.


People With Mental Illness Are Weak and Can’t Handle Stress.  Mental Illness is a Character Flaw.


Mental illness has nothing to do with being lazy or weak.  The reality is that often,

people who have experienced mental illness are better at managing stress as a result of having had the opportunity to learn a variety of strategies to cope with daily stressors and difficult life experiences.  Taking care of oneself and seeking help when needed are signs of courage and strength.


People with Mental Illness Are Violent and Unpredictable


Individuals with mental illness who commit acts of violence are the exception, not the norm.   Like all of us, people with mental illness have the capacity for violence. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence compared to the general population.


Mental Illness Is an Excuse for Bad Behaviour


Mental illness can affect behaviour.  Sometimes changes to our thinking and feeling can cause us to act in uncharacteristic ways.  These effects are not chosen and often create embarrassment and shame. Like everyone else, a person with mental illness can make poor decisions unrelated to their symptoms.  


Addiction is a Lifestyle Choice


Addiction results from a complex interaction of genetics, biology, environment and experiences.  Trauma often plays a significant role. Essentially, addiction is a state of altered brain function that leads to changes in behaviour characterized by repeated use of alcohol, drugs or involvement in activities such as gambling.  The urge to do these things is so powerful that it interferes with living life.


Your Just Sad, Not Depressed


Changes in emotions are to be expected.  We are always responding to our experiences.  At times we might be happy. Other times we might feel angry, sad or anxious.  All feelings serve useful purposes. Emotions help us to interpret what is happening and to respond to situations appropriately.  When a lion is chasing us for example, we feel fear and anxiety and hence we run. Healthy emotional responses shift easily. Depression is not just the blues.  It is characterized by a persistent low mood that lasts over a significant period of time. While sadness might be the predominant mood during an episode of depression so too can anger, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, anxiety, fear, numbness and emptiness.  It is also characterized by loss of interest, low energy, changes in appetite or weight, sleep changes, impaired memory and concentration and physical pain.


People with Mental Illness Do Not Recover


According to the Mental Health Commision of Canada the concept of recovery refers to living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life, even when a person may be experiencing ongoing symptoms of a mental health problem or illness. Recovery can by supported by a variety of services, supports, and treatments. Each person is unique and has the right to determine what recovery means for them, and what strategies to take to  achieve a sense of well being.


People With Mental Illness Can’t Work


Many employees can and do work, and are just as productive, while experiencing symptoms associated with mental illness.  Most want to work but are faced with systemic barriers to finding and keeping employment.


If You Feel Better You Are Cured


Some people with mental illness will experience a complete remission of symptoms.  This relief might be due to therapy and/or treatment. When treatment is stopped, symptoms can return.  Mental illness can often be episodic with periods of wellness interspersed with times when symptoms interfere with living life.


When You Have Mental Illness You Are Damaged


Having mental health issues does not make someone any less of a person.  We are not broken or odd. A person with mental illness is someone who has had a challenging experience that not everyone has to face.  


People with Mental Illness Lack Intelligence


While mental illness can cause cognitive issues.  The intelligence of people living with mental illness tends to parallel patterns within the general population.  Many are brilliant, creative and contributing members of society.


Prevention Doesn’t Work


Biological, environmental and psychosocial risk and protective factors have been identified from as early as fetal life. Many of these factors are changeable. Effective prevention can reduce risk factors, strengthen protective factors, reduce symptoms, and mitigate disability and onset of mental illness.


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