Not all mental illness is serious mental illness (SMI). While over 10 million American adults suffer from serious, debilitating mental illnesses, roughly 4% of the population, a far greater number of individuals, nearly 1 in 4, suffer daily from thoughts, emotions and resulting behaviors, which damage and even ruin relationships, families, jobs, finances, quality of life, and interfere with being happy and productive.
In fact, understanding what is meant by “mental illness,” and dispelling the many myths around mental illness, is the first step to changing the attitudes that keep us and others from seeking help.
When we misunderstand mental illness — and its gravity — we do damage. Rather than give individuals our understanding, compassion and support when they need it most, we intensify their struggle. Rather than give ourselves the change to make life-improving changes, we continue to struggle – sometimes to the point of ruin.
Educating ourselves can help. Below are a number of common myths and misunderstandings about mental illness, and some of the facts that can help us to take that first step.
Myth: People with mental health problems can fix it themselves if they try hard enough and people that see counselors are just weak-minded or have some character flaw.
Fact: The first part of this statement may not be entirely wrong as most people who have a mental health problem do not seek treatment for it. Rather, they rely on inherent and learned coping mechanisms (such as exercise, eating, hanging out with friends, working longer and harder, etc.) to manage the problem. Normal reactions to stress and loss such as crying, anger and short-term mood changes, are natural coping mechanisms that often work. Many problems which may be diagnosable as a mental health issue may be mild enough for these types of self-care to be sufficient.
However, when problems remain overwhelming despite our efforts to cope; when our reactions to problems are unhealthy, it’s time for additional help. This is not a sign of being weak — weak-minded, weak-willed, and it has nothing to do with character. This means we realize and accept the natural limitations to what we know and have learned about coping. Just as we would seek professional help when we don’t have the expertise to repair a physical injury, so too should we seek appropriate care when we need additional coping skills to help deal with problematic thinking, emotions and damaging behaviors.
Further, just like many illnesses, some factors that impact our thoughts and behaviors could result from biological and physical factors, such as genes, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry. The fact is, under the right circumstances, anyone could suffer from issues relating to mental health.
Myth: People can control their symptoms with sheer willpower.
Fact: Telling someone struggling with depression to just “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 through willpower isn’t just unhelpful; it may create additional layers of pain and shame when the person suffering fails to make themselves “feel better.” Besides the failure of some natural coping mechanisms to solve the problem, many of the causes of mental illness are due to brain chemistry, physiology, and environmental factors. No amount of willpower will fix that.
Myth: Medication is the only solution for mental illness.
Fact: 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. This is why psychotherapy, lifestyle changes and some alternative treatments are also important for managing mental illness and leading a fulfilling life.
Myth: Counseling takes forever and gets into childhood issues.
Fact: This is a myth and holdover from the older days of psychotherapy. Modern counseling, however, can be short-term, solution oriented. Most short-term psychotherapy approaches use a cognitive-behavioral model, which emphasizes irrational thoughts which lead to dysfunctional behaviors and feelings. This type of therapy emphasizes learning what those thoughts are and how to change many of them, often in a matter of a few weeks. Most common mental health disorders can now be treated in a matter of months instead of years.
Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
Fact: The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are as highly active and productive in our communities as those without mental health problems.
Myth: People with mental health needs, even those who are managing their mental illness, cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.
Fact: People with mental health problems are just as productive as other employees. Employers who hire people with mental health problems report good attendance and punctuality as well as motivation, good work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. As previously mentioned, most of the time employees with mental health problems who receive effective treatment are indistinguishable from any other employee.
Myth: Bad parenting causes mental illness.
Fact: A report from the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health showed that in any given year, 5-9 percent of children experience serious emotional disturbances. Just like adult mental illnesses, these are clinically diagnosable health conditions that are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, social, and sometimes even genetic factors.
Attitudes die hard but that doesn’t change the fact that mental illness touches everyone. Dispelling the myths and accepting the truth about mental illness and mental health helps us all. As a member of Capital EAP, you can contact us anytime for more information and to learn how you can help.