“You don’t have depression,” someone may say. “You’re just sad.”
A comment like that not only minimizes what a person is experiencing, but it displays a basic lack of understanding of that individual’s emotional state. “Depression is not something a person can will away,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “People often have the misconception that a person can just ‘cheer up’ or ‘shake it off.’ It is not just ‘the blues,’ but a serious medical condition that affects the biological functioning of our bodies.”
Failing to see the gravity of depression is one of many mental illness myths that contribute to mental health stigma, or the prejudicial attitudes and discriminating behaviors toward individuals with mental health problems. Other attempts at trivializing or downplaying mental illnesses are common. For instance, a lot of people believe that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is tantamount to being overly concerned with cleanliness and perfectionism. Such a belief and attitude undermine the types of OCD symptoms that people have, along with their seriousness.
A closer look at mental health myths can shed light on the misconceptions people have. It’s a critical step in understanding and battling mental health stigma.
Correcting Pervasive Mental Health Myths
A lot of mental health stigma can be traced to misunderstandings surrounding mental health. Here are a few mental health myths identified by the NAMI.
“Mental health conditions are uncommon.”
Roughly one in five Americans experiences mental illness at some point in life, according to the NAMI. Yet, that statement may considerably underestimate the prevalence of mental health conditions.
About 80 percent of the population will have a diagnosable mental illness over time, according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Why is that figure so much greater than what the NAMI provided? In an essay for Scientific American, researchers from the study explained that large national surveys rely on participants’ memories, which leads to underestimations. Additionally, up to a third of individuals contacted in those studies fail to enroll; that those “non-responders” tend to have poorer mental health.
Instead of relying on that methodology, researchers in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology study followed a generation of New Zealanders from birth to midlife. Regular, in-depth screenings took place every few years, and only 17 percent of study members failed to develop a mental health disorder, at least briefly, by middle age. The study’s methodology and findings are not unique. They have been corroborated by similar cohorts in New Zealand, Switzerland and the United States.
“Put another way, the study shows that you are more likely to experience a bout of mental illness than you are to acquire diabetes, heart disease or any kind of cancer whatsoever.”
– Authors of study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology
“Mental illness is caused by personal weakness.”
Mental illness is not due to some type of weakness. It’s not someone’s fault.
Causes of mental illness include environmental and biological factors. Compare that with what causes heart disease, diabetes or any other chronic illness share — environmental components as well as biological components, according to former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel. “The only difference here is that the organ of interest is the brain instead of the heart or pancreas,” he added. “But the same basic principles apply.”
Consider, for instance, the effects of stress on the body. Chronic stress is an environmental factor that increases the risk of heart attack, headaches and diabetes. In mental illness, chronic stress is again an environmental factor. A stressful job or traumatic event can make someone more susceptible to a mental health issue. In both cases, stress as an environmental factor combines with biological factors (such as genetics) to potentially cause diabetes or an anxiety disorder, for instance.
“You don’t need therapy. You can’t get better from a mental illness.”
There are plenty of mental health myths surrounding treatment. Some say that therapy isn’t helpful and that the affected person should just take a pill or tough it out. Others combine that notion, or believe separately, the idea that a person simply can’t get better from a mental illness.
Therapy can be a helpful way for individuals to explore thoughts, feelings and behaviors involved with a mental health issue. In many cases, it’s combined with medication. “Psychotherapy paired with medication is the most effective way to promote recovery,” according to the nonprofit organization Mental Health America. A treatment plan can include some combination of therapy, medication, education programs, peer support and more.
The end result is that people can get better from a mental illness. “Innovations in medicine and therapy have made recovery a reality for people living with a mental health issue, even chronic conditions,” according to the NAMI. “While all symptoms may not be alleviated easily or at all, with the right recovery plan, people can live the productive and healthy lives they’ve always imagined.”
Confronting Mental Health Stigma
It’s easy to see how mental health myths lead to stigma. People’s beliefs and attitudes toward mental illness shape how they interact with people impacted by those issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also affects how people with emotional difficulties and potential mental health issues respond. When people’s beliefs are rooted in popular misconceptions and the resulting attitudes are expressed negatively, mental health stigma emerges.
Negative Impacts of Mental Health Stigma
The primary aspect of mental health stigma is the negative beliefs and attitudes toward people with mental illness. That’s the social side of mental health stigma. Another aspect is perceived stigma or self-stigma, which takes place when a person with mental illness internalizes his or her perceptions of discrimination. As a result, there are two overarching consequences of mental health stigma.
- The general public fears, rejects, avoids and discriminates against people with mental illnesses. According to the CDC, the result is unequal access to resources that all people need to function, like educational opportunities, employment, a supportive community and access to quality healthcare. Those disadvantages can lead to further negative outcomes, socially and psychologically.
- The person with a mental health issue experiences perceived, enacted or anticipated avoidance or social exclusion. Perceived stigma can lead to people struggling with shame and encountering poorer treatment outcomes, according to Psychiatric Services.
Issues stemming from mental health stigma are complex and widespread. For instance, a minority of people impacted by mental health conditions seek treatment. Not only are factors like embarrassment preventing people from getting help for a mental health disorder, but they undermines efforts that can help the onset of mental illness. Stigma can prevent someone from receiving early treatment for symptoms that may worsen over time.
“Only about 20% of adults with a diagnosable mental disorder or with a self-reported mental health condition saw a mental health provider in the previous year.”
– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
When people with mental health problems don’t receive the support they need, further issues can develop. Individuals and their families can have difficulties obtaining decent, affordable housing and living successfully in the community. Some people may turn to unhealthy actions to help them cope with distress, the CDC noted. Behaviors like smoking and excessive alcohol use can increase the risk of chronic disease and worsen overall health.
Battling Mental Health Stigma
Responding to mental health stigma is a complex topic that must be considered at several levels of society. Healthcare and mental health professionals may pave the way for changing how people see mental health topics, but preventing stigma also takes place in schools, workplaces and practically every environment.
The NAMI’s StigmaFree campaign offers three simple steps that everyone can take to help eliminate mental health stigma.
- Educate yourself and others. Facts about mental health can reject stigmatizing stereotypes. There are several mental illness myths that distort a proper understanding of mental health. Learning the truth about mental health can enable you and those around you to develop a better awareness of various issues and conditions.
- See the person, not the condition. People with mental health conditions are not defined by a diagnosis. They are unique, and each has a different story, path and journey that’s much more indicative of who they are than their condition.
- Take action. Support legislation and policies that can improve lives.
You can take action by exploring several careers that support individuals and communities in managing mental health. By earning your behavioral health degree online, you can dedicate your work to battling mental health stigma, educating people about mental illness topics and making a difference in people’s life. Potential careers include community health specialist, health services manager, mental health technician and residential treatment specialist. You’ll also be prepared to apply for graduate studies in psychology and counseling.
Jefferson Online’s fully online program allows you to study flexibly, and to maintain your current personal and professional commitments. Experience a world-class education at your fingertips.