Education, activism, and the good and the bad that is social media have combined in recent years to raise awareness about mental health issues.
While it might be true that we've progressed a lot over the last few years, there are still several myths surrounding mental health that need to be addressed once and for all.
Myth: Mental illnesses are rare.
Fact: If only. One in five US adults will experience at least one episode of poor mental health in any given year.
That is 43.8 million adults in the US alone. Up the number to 83 percent and you have the percentage of the population estimated to experience a mental health issue at some point during their lifetime, the most common two being anxiety and depression. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology last year.
What's more, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in 25 (or 4 percent) of people aged 18+ will have what can be described as a major bout of mental illness that severely interferes with their day-to-day life every single year. This almost certainly means that someone you know is going through a period of poor mental health. All this goes to show that mental illness is extremely, extremely common.
Myth: Children do not experience mental health issues.
Fact: Mental illness can strike anyone at any time, regardless of their age, gender, race, or sexuality.
Public opinion over this particular myth appears to be changing: A national poll conducted by Kaiser Permanente in 2017 found that 89 percent of the 3,005 adults surveyed accepted the fact that anyone can develop a mental health condition. What's more, it can hit at any age. According to NAMI, one in five teenagers aged 13 to 18 will experience a mental health condition and half of all chronic mental illness starts before a person's 14th birthday. Sadly, adolescent mental health seems to have been getting worse as of late (and it's possibly due to our growing obsession with smartphones).
Myth: Mental illness can be put down to a character flaw. If you try hard enough, you can snap out of it.
Fact: People with mental illnesses are not weak or lazy and it is not just a case of “snapping out of it”.
The Kaiser Permanente poll revealed that more than a half of US adults attributed mental health problems at least in part to a personal weakness or character flaw. And you only have to look to the Twitterverse to see how ingrained this particular myth has become in the public psyche. But mental illness is not the result of your character and you cannot just "get a grip" – a complicated mix of factors may cause someone to feel mentally unwell, including an underlying genetic predisposition, chemical imbalances, stress, trauma, and physical disease or injury.
Myth: People with mental illnesses are dangerous and violent.
Fact: This is false. In fact, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence.
The unhinged lunatic is a damaging stereotype of mental illness (particularly schizophrenia, addiction, and bipolar) propagated by cinematic and literary tropes. Think of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street and Jack Torrence in The Shining. This image of mental illness seems to have infiltrated popular imagination – the Kaiser Permanente poll also found that 38 percent of respondents believed that people with mental health conditions are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. In reality, they are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
Fortunately, filmmakers are getting better at representing mental health on screen. For a better reflection of what living with a mental health problem is actually like, watch Silver Linings Playbook, A Beautiful Mind, It's Kind Of A Funny Story, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, and some the other films listed on the NAMI website.
Myth: Mental illness is all in the mind.
Fact: Being mentally unwell can seriously fuck up your physical health.
Despite what the name might imply, mental illness is not all mental. It can have a serious effect on your physical health as one Twitter user demonstrated in a thread explaining "Why Mental Illnesses Can Make People So Tired". Other physical manifestations may include migraines, nausea, digestive troubles, and a defective immune system. Mental health troubles have also been linked to more serious complications such as metabolic disorders, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disease, and can even wipe 10 to 20 years off the average lifespan. So no, it's not all in your head.
Myth: Mental illnesses are incurable. If diagnosed, you will be mentally ill for life.
Fact: With proper treatment and management, people may recover and live without any further episodes. But this depends on the person and the mental illness.
The good news is that mental illness can be treatable – a diagnosis is not a prognosis for life. But what works for one person won't necessarily be as effective for another. And, of course, it depends on the type of mental illness in the first place. For example, a person diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder (BPD) may notice some of the symptoms dissipate as they get older. In contrast, if someone is diagnosed with bipolar, they may be advised to continue medication even when they are not displaying symptoms.
For most people, mental health setbacks are temporary. Even when the illness is chronic, like bipolar and schizophrenia, it can be managed with a combination of some or all of the following: drugs, therapy, support groups, and lifestyle changes (for example, an overhaul of their diet and exercise regimen).