The Misconceptions About Mental Illness We Need To Unlearn

The Misconceptions About Mental Illness We Need To Unlearn

Mental illness isn’t like a sinus infection. You can’t just wait it out or take a pill to make everything go away. Our brains are complex and enigmatic, and mental illness is no different. This leads to a lot of misconceptions that make recovery much harder. Here are a few facts you should know, whether you’re a sufferer or not.

Illustration by Sam Wooley. Photos by A Zillion Dollars Comic, and Hyperbole and a Half.

Before we talk about misconceptions, it helps to identify just what “mental illness” means. Everyone has stress and difficult emotions from time to time and this is normal. Mental illness, on the other hand, is any condition that makes it difficult to function in daily life. It can affect your relationships, your job or prevent you from reaching any otherwise attainable goal.

If that sounds like a pretty wide definition, it’s because the human mind is complex. Mental illness can range from anxiety and mood disorders that have a severe and tangible effect on your emotions and motivation, to psychotic disorders like schizophrenia that affect your perceptions or senses with things like delusions or hallucinations. Living with any of these can be debilitating. We rely on our senses, emotions and perceptions to get us through the day. When any of those fail, it can make life difficult.

I’ve struggled with mental illnesses for decades. Over the years, I’ve had diagnoses ranging from depression to Asperger’s and I’ve encountered a lot of misconceptions. Some are basic issues that the general population just hasn’t learned about, while others are deep-seated beliefs that even I have had to un-learn. Here are some of the ones that still seem to stick around.

Misconception: “Mental Health Problems Last Forever”

Doctors, patients and friends alike that talk about mental illnesses will often tell you it “never really goes away”. They say this both to set expectations (as there is rarely a “cure” in the traditional sense) as well as to help others understand the struggle that those with mental illnesses go through. The problem is, this is often interpreted to mean that the symptoms of mental illness never go away.

If this were true, therapy and treatment would be pointless. In fact, telling someone with a mood disorder like depression that their problems will never go away can sap their already dwindling motivation to try. However, the truth is a bit more encouraging: while we don’t know how to cure mental illness, it’s very possible to treat many types of mental illness to the point that the symptoms can be managed and a person can live a fulfilling, happy life.

For many decades, it was assumed that once a person reached adulthood, their brain would no longer change. As David Hellerstein, MD explains, even as recently as the ’80s and ’90s, the concept of the brain physically changing over time was given little thought. However, in recent decades, researchers have increasingly discovered that neuroplasticity — which simply means that your brain creates new connections and restructures itself throughout the course of your life — can play a huge part in how your brain develops and changes over time:

In brief, we have realised that ‘neuroplasticity,’ the ongoing remodeling of brain structure and function, occurs throughout life. It can be affected by life experiences, genes, biological agents, and by behaviour, as well as by thought patterns. Interestingly, exercise and physical activity in general have a major effect on ‘neurotrophic factors’-chemicals that stimulate the growth and recovery of brain cells.

The concept of neuroplasticity is still a new area of research, but it does give hope to those with mental illness: just because your symptoms are intense and unbearable right now doesn’t mean they always will be. Like many people, I first learned about this idea just a few years ago. It was the first time in decades that it seemed like there was hope for my situation.

It’s still not an easy road, of course, especially for psychotic disorders like schizophrenia that can be much harder to treat. However, over time and with the help of therapy and treatment, your brain can adapt. You might never be “cured”, but it’s still possible that having a mental illness may someday be something that’s only a minor annoyance, rather than a crippling disability that makes it hard to even get out of bed.

Misconception: “Only Violent or Unstable People Have Mental Health Problems”

The Misconceptions About Mental Illness We Need To Unlearn

If you only ever read comic books, you might reasonably assume that radiation gives you superpowers. By a similar token, if you only ever watched movies, TV or the news, you might believe that having a mental illness at best makes you a crippled genius, and at worst a serial killer. Both of these assumptions are untrue.

Mental illnesses are, by their very nature, disruptive to a person’s life. However, the way they manifest can vary wildly from person to person. Mental illness is not the only factor that determines how a person behaves and interacts with others. Some depression sufferers internalise their symptoms and can appear perfectly happy on the surface, while others may show their symptoms very obviously. Anxiety can make a person irritable or simply avoid social interactions. Assuming that mental illness makes someone unstable is like assuming a career in engineering causes people to wear polo shirts.

As for the violence stereotype, there’s virtually no evidence to suggest that mental illness and violence have any meaningful correlation. As Dr Heather Stuart explained in a 2003 paper on the subject of violence and mental health, mental illness is “neither necessary, nor sufficient [to cause] violence”. In other words, having a mental disorder did not inherently make someone violent, nor did being violent indicate that someone had a mental illness.

That’s not to say that there is never any overlap. People with mood and anxiety disorders can still be violent. So can anyone else. If you’re a friend to someone with a mood disorder, you don’t need to worry that they’re going to become violent unless they demonstrate a propensity towards violence. Similarly, you can have an anxiety disorder even if you seem to have your life together. Everyone, regardless of their personality, lifestyle or background can suffer from a mental illness.

Misconception: “You Can’t Handle Relationships”

Having a mental illness is never ideal, but it also doesn’t mean that you’re unable to take part in normal activities like pursuing relationships. Because mental illness can cause stress in any kind of relationship, there’s often pressure to “get yourself together” before you can maintain friendships, work relationships or romantic endeavours. However, quite the opposite is usually true: isolating from normal relationships can be a hindrance to recovery.

As mental health journalist and schizophrenia sufferer Lisa R. Rhodes explains, having supportive relationships can aid in recovery. Since mental illness affects how you perceive or react to reality, having relationships with people who are able to help you through is a huge asset:

Years of research have shown that having social support is an essential part of recovery in mental illness. Supportive romantic relationships in particular are important for depression, because a good relationship can help bolster someone who’s going through a depressive episode, while a bad relationship can trigger depression or make pre-existing depression worse.

Speaking from personal experience, one of the hardest parts of dealing with depression was that how I perceived the world was frequently wrong. Relying on friends and loved ones to provide outside input helped to counter that perception and keep me grounded. Without that psychological counter-balance, it’s very likely that I would have veered too far towards self-destruction or even suicide. While my illness often took a toll on my relationships (and still does occasionally), they were also crucial to my recovery.

Relationships can certainly be hard for someone with a mental illness. They can also be hard for someone who has a terminal disease, someone with children, people who live long distances apart or people with red blood who breathe oxygen and live on planet Earth. Relationships aren’t easy. Having a mental illness certainly makes relationships a challenge, but it doesn’t disqualify you from having them.

Misconception: “You Can Just Snap Out of It”

The Misconceptions About Mental Illness We Need To Unlearn

One of the worst and most prevalent misconceptions when it comes to mental illness is the “snap out of it” response. If you’ve ever suffered from a mental illness, you know the drill: you start talking to a friend about your problems. They listen for a while and offer some support, but eventually they start to talk about your attitude towards the problem. “It’s all in your head” or “Just don’t dwell on it so much” or “You need to move on”.

The thing is, the inability to “just get over it” is exactly the problem. It’s what separates mental illness from normal, day-to-day stress. Your brain is supposed to be able to filter your emotions and process thoughts rationally, but sometimes it doesn’t. Everyone has problems handling their emotions and could use some encouragement sometimes. What makes mental illness different is that the part of your brain that helps make the jump from discouraged or worried or unmotivated back to normal is malfunctioning. The amazing Hyperbole and a Half blog explains how this concept can be damaging and frustrating for all involved:

But people want to help. So they try harder to make you feel hopeful and positive about the situation. You explain it again, hoping they will try a less hope-centric approach, but re-explaining your total inability to experience joy inevitably sounds kind of negative; like maybe you WANT to be depressed. The positivity starts coming out in a spray — a giant, desperate happiness sprinkler pointed directly at your face. And it keeps going like that until you’re having this weird argument where you’re trying to convince the person that you are far too hopeless for hope just so they will give up on their optimism crusade and let you go back to feeling bored and lonely by yourself.   And that’s the most frustrating thing about depression. It isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn’t even something — it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.

Having mood or anxiety disorders isn’t just having a particular feeling. It’s losing the ability to feel anything else. Sure, you know that you don’t have to be nervous when meeting new people, but all your brain can think about is how awkward you feel. You can tell yourself not to think about it, but it doesn’t work. Put another way, if you could just “get over it,” you wouldn’t have a mental illness.

This misconception is particularly insidious because people with mental illness succumb to it too. If everyone’s telling you to just feel differently, but you can’t, then you start to stress over why you can’t do it. Your inability to control your anxiety makes you more anxious. You can’t stop yourself from feeling hopeless, so you feel more hopeless. It’s a terrible cycle and the only way to break it is for both sufferers and supporters to recognise that they need to find an alternative solution.

Misconception: “Treatment Is a Waste of Time”

One of the most damaging misconceptions about mental illness is the idea that going to therapy is waste of time. Much like the previous misconception, this one comes from sufferers who feel hopeless and supporters who feel frustrated alike. Also like the last section, it only serves to get in the way of genuine recovery.

Of all the misconceptions in this article, I personally relate to this one the most. Unfortunately, neuroscience is still a developing field, which means that even mental health professionals may be subject to error, developing science, or the constantly-changing models we use to understand human behaviour. If you’re cynical (or if the costs of treatment are too high), it can easily feel like getting help is a waste. Why pay someone hundreds of dollars to listen to you talk when you can vent your woes to your bar buddies for free, right?

The reason this misconception is a problem can be explained by the last one: your bar buddies probably don’t know what they’re talking about. Talk therapy might seem like a waste of time, but you’re not paying to talk. You’re paying to get the experience of someone who understands mental illness better than you (and your friends) do. Like most other services where you hire a professional, you’re paying for expertise.

This process can be very long and involve what feels like a lot of wasted effort. Your first few sessions in talk therapy are likely going to involve a lot of explaining your past. Some treatment methods like Dialectical Behaviour Therapy can involve classes on coping mechanisms or strategies to help you deal with emotional flare ups. If your doctor prescribes medication, you may end up having to try multiple types of pills before you find one that works for you to produce the intended effects. And that’s to say nothing of newer types of treatment still being developed.

That’s a lot to handle if you feel like your only problem is getting worried too often. If you’re depressed, the thought of even figuring out what type of therapy to pursue can be overwhelming, much less getting the motivation to step out the door every week to keep an appointment. However, as we established earlier, just trying to “feel better” until you’re cured doesn’t work. Getting help, on the other hand, might. Even a small chance is better than none at all.

My personal journey took nearly twenty years. When I was eight years old, I had a few seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy, which it turns out I didn’t have. Later the diagnosis changed to Tourette’s Syndrome, then they added ADHD and OCD. Depression got tacked on after that. I’ve been on at least a dozen different medications, I’ve been in residential treatment facilities and special education schools. I’ve tried toughening it out, I’ve tried praying it out and I’ve tried reprogramming my brain with computers.

There were a million moments where that journey felt pointless. In fact, one could argue that some of my experiences actually made my issues worse. I’d like to write here that getting treatment will definitely help, but I know all too well that’s not always true. Sometimes you try something and it doesn’t work and I don’t want to give anyone false hope. However, doing nothing was the only thing I ever tried that was guaranteed to accomplish nothing.


  • I have been suffering from anxiety and panic attacks since high school, during those years I have also developed social anxiety and even talking to people triggers panic attacks! Some days are better than other and some days are worse. Recently I have found something that helps me to cope with the anxiety and control my panic attacks to a certain extent. Although it does not cure my attacks It has really helped me improve.
    When you have a chance I would recommend you take a look at
    It is a good read, I hope I helped somebody else out there!

  • Really? This is the best set of myths that could be identified? They all seemed obvious and superficial to me.

    Here are some far more common and damaging ones that are actually realistic and prevalent.

    “Woman up” (a sexist quote from Big Hero 6)
    Well, at least the feminists loved this quote. Group activities rely on team work and a team lead to steer them in a common direction. If someone is not performing to a perceived standard due to a mental illness triggering an adverse side-effect (slow response, fatigue, over stimulation, etc), many leaders play the “woman up” card. This bullying tactic is very commen by men AND women and usually results in social embarrassment, isolation and bullying by peers – if the leader does it, why can’t we? It is very common in schools, social groups (eg. Scouts) and social sports teams (eg. Netball, football).

    Political Correctness
    Many of the symptoms people see as mental illness affect all people. It’s common that the threshold is lower in people with mental illnesses, so it appears more often. Political Correctness often leads to special treatment for people with mental illness, when in reality, the focus should be on the symptom, not the cause. If a person is exhausted, don’t highlight their mental condition, just give them a break. If someone is wound up, focus on a method to release that energy. It is far to common that the illness is emphasised and used as the excuse rather than a symptom. Again, this attitude leads to social isolation, embarrassment, etc. This behaviour is very prevalent. Instead of seeing this as a problem, it can highlight what the rest of the group are starting to experience – like a canary in the coal mine.

    Disclosure: I am a parent of a child with mental illness. It’s interesting that I expect my child to be treated with the same respect as other children, but not to be treated as special. It infuriates me that feminism (and not just feminism) demands special treatment for arbitrary criteria. This screams “incapable”. People need to stop making excuses, show respect when someone struggles. The moment someone can rest on their laurels because of an excuse, they will – and they become the victim. Is that so hard to understand? It would seem so. This special treatment attitude is extremely prevalent and accepted for all the wrong reasons.

  • Some people are crippled by their mental illness – to some extent this is expected. Some people, however, just get on with things. I have suffered severe depression, but I haven’t missed a day of work because of it in my life! This does not make me less depressed, it just means that my make up is different to someone elses and I can continue to function where others could not. I’m not better than them, nor am I worse, just different. No two people with mental illness are the same and assuming they are is just foolish.

  • I’d suggest that if you didnt miss a day of work, maybe its less about you being more able to cope than others and more about your subjective measure of severity. Unless presented with something entirely outside of their realm of experience, such as a psychotic episode, people all too often seem to measure things by their personal worst, choosing to consider it a quirk of their personality or makeup that allows them to keep functioning when others cannot, rather than considering that their personal experiences are instead perhaps more limited than they like to think.

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