In certain parts of society there is still a lot of stigma and misinformation about mental health issues. Here are 3 of the most common misconceptions we still encounter.
Myth 1: “Mentally unwell people are a danger to themselves or others”
Actually, while it is true that a significant proportion of those who commit violence against themselves or others have mental health issues, the reverse is not true. Only a small proportion of mentally unwell people are in danger of violence or self-harm. According to Mind, about 1 in 4 people in the UK will be affected by mental health problems each year. The most common issues, like depression and anxiety are not significantly associated with dangerous behaviour, and many people experience these difficulties while continuing to function quite well.
Some people with mental health conditions do find themselves troubled by violent or suicidal thoughts, dreams or images. However, there is a world of difference between thought and action. If there is a high frequency of intrusive violent thoughts this can stimulate people to seek professional help. The majority of clients when asked say that they know they would not act on these thoughts, and, indeed, most never do.
Myth 2: “People with mental health problems could recover if they made more of an effort”
There is a huge amount of information now available in the form of self-help literature and websites, that can easily be accessed by those suffering from mental health issues. Most people diagnosed with a mental illness already have been making a huge effort to be well. This effort may be in the form of suppression, hiding how they feel, and just getting on with things. Or it may be in the form of maintaining activities associated with mental wellness, such as exercise, meditation, yoga and socialising. Making an effort to hide the symptoms through suppression, or to manage them with self-help activities is sometimes useful, but often will not “fix” the problem.
Mentally unwelll people are not weak or lazy. There could be any number of issues that lead to someone’s difficulties, from biological or genetic factors, to family history, trauma or life experiences.
Myth 3: “If your life is going well, you can’t be mentally ill”
One of the most common remarks from people who become mentally ill when their life is going well is, that “I have no right to feel this way, when others have real problems, like homelessness or domestic abuse”. The other side of this myth is, that if I get my life in order so that it appears a “good” or “successful” life according to the expectations of my family or culture, then my mental health will improve. Unfortunately, neither of these ideas are correct. Sometimes it can be illuminating to compare mental illness with physical illness – we don’t judge ourselves as needing the “right” to be physically ill. Similarly we know that a nice house, career, family and so on, can’t protect us from becoming physically ill, and it is the same with mental health problems.
Happily, in the UK there has been a great improvement in our understanding and acceptance of mental illness in the 21st Century. More diverse types of help are available than ever before, from support groups and talking therapies, to online resources and medication. Nevertheless more work is needed around breaking the stigma connected with mental illness. When you encounter people who have a mental health issue see if you can remain open minded, bearing in mind the common myths described here, and seek to understand what life is like for them. If you consider yourself to have a mental illness you can help break the stigma by bravely speaking out about your condition and helping to bust some of the myths.