Mental Health

Separating Mental Illness Fact from Fiction

For as much stigma that continues to surround mental health disorders, it’s important to note just how incredibly common it really is. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults have some form of mental illness in a given year. It can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, status, sexual orientation, or any number of other cultural identifiers, and can take any number of forms from mild phobias to chronic or severe conditions.

It’s common, it doesn’t discriminate, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

As a mental health professional and the Medical Director of Washington Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, I come across many myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health disorders. I feel these untruths and misunderstandings around the subject prevent the general public from accepting mental illness for what it is: just another medical condition that needs to be treated.

In an effort to increase awareness and destigmatize mental illness, here are some of the most common misconceptions that I’d like to clear up:

You’re Either Mentally Well or Mentally Ill

Mental health isn’t a black and white condition where you’re either sick or well. Rather, it’s on a continuum. Just as you change over your lifetime, so does your mental health. That’s perfectly normal. Even on the road to recovery, there are peaks and valleys. So, it’s important to know that there’s no on or off switch for mental health or even a point in which you can say, “Here I’m fine and there I’m not.” You’re constantly changing and so is your mental state.

Mental Illness is a Sign of Weakness

People will come to me on a regular basis and say, “My primary care physician thought I should come and see you, but really I’m fine.” Even when you can see the hurt behind those words, they don’t want to seem weak or incapable of dealing with their feelings. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Mental illness is no different than, say, a sports injury. You don’t see a doctor about an injury because you’re weak; you see a doctor because you want to get back to your life or back to optimal functioning. In both cases, recovery is a process – and not always an easy one – but you can’t make that journey unless you take the first step of acknowledging you’re in pain.

Mental Illness Isn’t a Medical Issue

Your brain is an organ, and sometimes organs get sick. That’s just a fact of life. Mental illness is what happens when your brain gets sick. I think it’s also important to distinguish the brain (an organ) from your mind (the core of who you are). Just like an illness within your stomach or liver or heart doesn’t change who you are, neither does mental illness. Once treated and back to optimal function, you can go back to your daily life.

Mental Illness is Permanent

I see a lot of people who worry that, once diagnosed with depression or anxiety, they’re going to struggle with it for the rest of their lives. That’s simply not the case. While it may be a process full of hills and valleys, many common mental disorders are treatable with a well-rounded recovery plan that combines medication, therapy, support and education.

People Who Have Mental Illness are Violent

It’s really unfortunate that we only ever talk about mental illness in times of national tragedies like mass shootings because there’s no evidence or research to support that those with mental illness are any more violent than the general population. In fact, only 3-5% of violent acts are perpetrated by individuals with serious mental illness. Sadly, it’s far more likely that people with severe mental illness will be the victims of violent crime – 11 times more likely – or harm themselves. Suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and accounts for nearly 45,000 lives lost each year, more than double the number of homicides.

People Who Have Mental Illness Aren’t Productive Members of Society

While an estimated 135,000 of the nation’s half a million homeless people suffer from some sort of mental illness, it’s also important to note that there are many different types and severities of mental health conditions. Many common conditions don’t have a significant impact on one’s ability to work or stay employed – especially when being actively managed or treated. Even if mental illness precludes someone from gainful employment, they are not without worth. In fact, I have a number of patients with severe or chronic mental health conditions who volunteer their time when able.

There’s Nothing I Can Do to Help Someone with Mental Illness

You can help by being there. As I mentioned before, a good recovery plan includes support in addition to therapy, medication and education. You are that support. Listen, be patient, be supportive, and understand their illness doesn’t define who they are. If you’d like to learn more about helping a loved one with a mental health condition, I encourage you to read this month’s companion piece on ways you can support a family member with mental illness.