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Five Common Myths About Mental Illness

Updated on January 31, 2013
Painter Vincent Van Gogh suffered from severe depression, hallucinations, and eventually took his own life
Painter Vincent Van Gogh suffered from severe depression, hallucinations, and eventually took his own life | Source

Myth #1: People with Mentally Illness Are More Likely to Commit Violent Acts

Statistically speaking, the mentally ill are no more likely to commit violent acts than any other group of human beings. In fact, the mentally ill are much more likely than the average person to be victimized by violence.

Often, after a dramatic mass murder, the press and the general public routinely refer to the perpetrator as a 'madman' or 'crazy person'. However, the criminal profile of the person most likely to commit a single mass murderous act has much more to do with age, race, and gender--namely, young, white and male--than with any diagnosable mental illness.

Although some of the people who commit mass murder are later diagnosed with a mental illness, many are not mentally ill in a clinical sense. Also, the vast majority of mass murderers plan their crimes carefully for a year or more--their crimes are not the result of a spontaneous lack of emotional or mental control.

Many of these men lack social skills and isolate themselves from others, which is not healthy, but again, is not a mental illness.

Myth #2: Mentally Ill People Must Be Locked Up in Insane Asylums, Often for Life

One of the reasons mental illness is so viciously stigmatized in the US is the pervasive belief that revealing a mental illness will eventually result in lifelong warehousing in a mental institution with little hope for escape. This keeps people from seeking treatment and allows others to spread inaccurate stereotypes instead of developing compassion and educating themselves.

During the 19th century and well into the 20th century people thought to be mentally ill could indeed be warehoused for life. In many parts of the world, mental illness is still a tool for incarcerating political dissidents indefinitely.

However, classic 'insane asylums' have not existed in the US for at least 50 years.

The goal of modern psychiatry is to enable a person with a mental illness to lead as close to a normal life as possible, and millions of people with serious mental illnesses lead perfectly normal lives and work in respected public professions.

Today, modern psychiatric hospitals and psychiatric wards are reserved for people in extreme crisis. These people are stabilized as quickly as possible and released with an outpatient treatment plan and as much social support as can be arranged.

With the reduction in affordable mental health services in the US over the past 30 years there are now so many people in crisis that it is very difficult to get into a psychiatric facility even briefly, even if you need one. So being warehoused for life is not remotely possible.

Myth #3: Mental Illness is Rare, Especially in the U.S.

Mental illness is common across the globe, and is increasing in most countries, including in the US. One in three people in the U.S. suffers from mental illness at any given time, and over the course of a life time, 57% of all US citizens will experience a bout of mental illness that requires professional intervention.

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the US (generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic disorder, PTSD), affecting about one in four Americans. Depressive disorders (major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder) are the second most common, and mood disorders (for example, bipolar disorder) are the third.

Myth #4: Psychiatric Medications Should be Avoided at All Costs

In the US, the pharmaceutical industry is able to advertise drugs the way clothing manufacturers advertise shoe styles. This has lead to a vigorous discussion of the overuse and abuse of SSRIs and other psychiatric medications, and is part of an ongoing debate about the US for-profit medical system.

However, the fact remains that for the most common mental illnesses--anxiety disorders, depression, and mood disorders--proper medication in the proper dose is essential to successful treatment. Many people with anxiety or depression are able to come off of medication gradually after about two years. Others must stay on medication for life.

The idea that medication is bad is based on the myth that mental illness is a character flaw, not a true physical illness. Yet thirty years ago mental health professionals were already responding to studies showing that depression and many other mental illnesses have more in common with physical illness than was previously thought.

Many mental illnesses are analogous to chronic physical illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. Lifestyle changes and psychotherapy can help and are in fact necessary. Medication is also necessary. If you are diabetic you need to avoid sugary foods and take your insulin. If you are bipolar you need social support, a manageable environment, and the proper dosage of medication to stabilize your moods.

Myth #5: Mental Illness is a Shameful and a Sign of Personal Weakness

Chances are excellent that one or more of your friends or family suffers from a mental illness and functions as well as any other person you know. Mental illness is treatable and living well while coping with mental illness is not only possible, it is a likely outcome when addressed early.

Stigmatizing mental illness causes people to avoid seeking help and to suffer needlessly. Some mental illnesses are purely organic, the result of heredity or a biological problem. Most are a combination of heredity, biology, and life experience.

Many famous, successful people cope with an ongoing mental illness. A few of these people are:

  • Actresses Parry Duke, Carrie Fisher, and Catherine Zeta Jones (bipolar disorder).
  • Talk show host and essayist Dick Cavett (major depression).
  • Brooke Shields (postpartum depression).
  • Anchor woman Jane Pauley (bipolar disorder).
  • Famous economist and math genius John Nash (paranoid schizophrenia).
  • Academy award winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson (major depression).
  • Heisman trophy winning NFL player Herschel Walker (dissociative identity disorder--formerly known as 'multiple personality disorder').
  • Howard Huges (OCD, an anxiety disorder).
  • Paula Deen (agoraphobia--a phobic disorder which causes people to fear leaving the house).
  • Curt Cobain (ADD and bipolar disorder).


Help Spread the Truth

The truth about mental illness is that more than half of all Americans will suffer from it at some point in their lives, and without access to good, affordable care, everyone suffers.

You can help by learning the facts.

Don't use words 'like 'crazy', 'madman', 'wacko', etc. to describe people with problems.

Don't use psychiatric terminology to refer to habits that have nothing to do with mental illness (for example, saying "He is so OCD" to mean someone is very neat, or saying "she is so schizophrenic" to indicate someone is emotionally scattered).

Don't equate violence with mental illness. Violence is most often a result of poor socialization and stuffed rage, and is not, in and of itself, a mental illness. A few mental illnesses can cause violent outbursts when poorly managed. Most do not.

Don't tell other people to stop taking their medications for depression or any other mental illness until 1) you obtain your medical degree and 2) that person asks for your advice.

Lobby your Congressperson for an expansion of affordable mental health resources.

Chances are very good you will one day need them yourself.

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    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thanks Kitty! I actually have heard about depersonalization disorder. I struggled for years with episodes of dissociation, of which depersonalization was one aspect. Today I feel pretty good and rarely have flares, but it took a really long time to get here. I thought about sharing my personal struggles in this article but decided against it because people always leave comments to the effect that I need to eat more broccoli or they don't 'believe in' the disorder or whatever. But those of us who have been there know otherwise! I appreciate you sharing your experience. It takes real courage!

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

      Wonderful thought-provoking and honest hub, CR. Thank you for clearing up the misconceptions. You were right on. In fact, I struggle with depersonalization disorder (this is something that no one knows except myself, believe it or not). And I don't believe that I am "crazy" or should be institutionalized. Blessings to you!

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thank you Nell! It really is hard--for the family, for the person with the illness, and then to have to deal with the stigma too. That's not right. Thanks for reading. All the best to you and your brother.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Yes its so typical that even today people regard mental illness as either (a) not real or (b) something that we should hide away and never show because its embarrassing. I remember seeing on tv a program that said if we can have a broken leg, hurt stomach and anything else, why not say our minds don't work properly? my brother is clinical depressive, and its really hard, great hub, nell

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thanks Wiccan Sage!

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 4 years ago

      What a well done article, and so important, too. This is information that everyone needs to know.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Hi aviannovice! I do think it's about time for a system revamp. I worked my way through college and majored in psychology, then went back for a master's in psych & philosophy but it isn't a counseling masters. I thought I'd be able to get some kind of social service job, but by the time I graduated they were already cutting back so drastically I finally gave up. Now it's even worse. I'd like to help somehow but I can't even get hired to bag groceries. I've worked with so many professional people who can't get work or can only get work outside their fields in low paying service jobs. We have a lot of good people in this country who want to help but no political will to change. Maybe now we will see things turn around. I hope so. Thanks for commenting.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      For decades now, so many people have slipped through the cracks for mental health care. There are so many homeless on the streets. Many things are ignored due to the lack o MANPOWER with social services. I think it is about time that our system be revamped, don't you?

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Lipnancy--I'm always surprised by how strong that stigma is too. It isn't like it's contagious, I don't know why mental illness freaks people out so much. Depression is especially hard right now because everyone seems to have an opinion but really, that isn't helpful to the person dealing with it. The best thing we can do is support each other no matter what our issues are. No one gets out of here easy!

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      denise.w.anderson--I agree. It's tough on everyone and it really does take a team approach and a lot of flexibility. Thank you so much for your input.

    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 4 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      You know in working with persons with all disabilities, it always surprised me how strong the stigma toward the mentally ill really is. When in reality, we would be surprised how many people are being successfully medicated.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks for bringing these myths out into the open where people can read and discuss them. We have to be very careful not to judge the mental health care system or the people in it. After years of working with mental health professionals for myself and family members, I have found it to be no different that dealing with the regular medical system when one has a chronic illness. The best thing we can do is to be supportive of loved ones who have these issues and help them to work with the system to get their needs met. That way, we are part of the solution and not the problem.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      MM, I agree with every word. That's the thing about meds--no, they aren't a magic cure but they provide a fighting chance. And I so agree about GPs prescribing psych meds. They can do immense harm. I know they mean to help, but they aren't trained.

      Ditto research. What frustrates me most about this uptick in horrific killings is the focus on criminalization and almost NO focus on research. We have tools. We can look into this. Why isn't it happening?'

      Great comment. Thank you.

    • profile image

      mighty mom 4 years ago

      Myth #6: Mental Illness can be cured. No. It is a medical condition. It can be managed. Much like you manage diabetes. We all know where untreated diabetes leads to. Untreated mental illness isolates the sufferer more and more, they receive less social supports, and ultimately fall through the crack in an alley somewhere. Because people are afraid ot them. "We just don't know WHAT he might be capable of!"

      I think there is a societal tendency to want to live in a sanitized and safe environment. Put "those" people away where I don't have to see them and they can't bother or hurt me. NIMBY, of course.

      The tremendous strides we've seen in AIDS diagnosis and treatment prvoides a great model. We need better invervention -- understand what's beneath the behavior you're seeing. We need better treatment options, including inpatient, outpatient and one-on-one therapy.

      And we need to pump more money into research. If they find a cure that would be bonus. But the more we can find out about what causes mental illness and look for trends (exposures to same chemicals, abnormalities in a certain section of the brain, etc.) the better we can head mental illness off at the pass.

      THere's also the compliance issue. MI patients are notorious for not taking their meds. Once they feel better they feel they don't need them. Or they don't like the "monotone" way the pills make them feel. Or the side effects.

      A pill alone -- or even a whole cocktail of pills -- can't solve the problem in a vacuum. But at least give you a fighting chance.

      I will also add that primary care physicians are NOT doing their patients any favors putting them on antidepressants. They're not antibiotics!!

      I do, absolutely, recognize how hard it is to get into the MH system.

      But you owe it to your loved one -- or yourself -- to be seen by a PSYCHIATRIST who specializes in treating brain disorders.

      Great hub. Guess I had some strong feelings about it! MM

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Lilleyth, thank you!

      It's unspeakably horrible. Eventually we will have to speak of it if we are ever to get to the bottom of why this is happening so often now. I know it kind of comforts people to say, well obviously these people are insane, but that's the trouble--nothing is obvious, and if we just attribute the violence to insanity and take it no further, it harms the millions of people who have mental illness and are not violent, AND we never get to the reason this is happening.

      It's coming out now that this kid had Aspergers, but it's also obvious Asperger's didn't cause him to do this. Millions of people have Aspergers and would never do anything like this. In fact people who knew him didn't think HE could do this. So that shows how hard slippery finding sense in this is.

      So that's why I wrote this. But I am with you, it is horrifying.

    • Lilleyth profile image

      Suzanne Sheffield 4 years ago from Mid-Atlantic

      Thumbs up CR. I don't know what to think after all those children were slaughtered.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Sally's Trove, I so agree on the prison thing.

      Especially where I live, prison has become an industry, and you are so right, most of the people in there have untreated mental illness.

      Ditto homeless people. We didn't used to dump the mentally ill out on the street but today we do. The first year I moved to Michigan a grade school teacher who had lost her job and her benefits and who suffered from schizophrenia stopped taking her meds and froze to death on the courthouse steps over night. It sounds like Dickens but things like that happen way to often here.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thanks gsidley!

      I think the debate about overmedication is necessary, and I'm old enough to know that the profession seesaws between a purely medical model (drugs) and a purely behavioral/emotional one (therapy).

      What bothers me is when people who know nothing about coping with mental illness start telling people who have to deal with it day in and day out that they don't need medication or they can snap themselves out of it if they try harder, eat right, walk more... fill in the blank with your favorite platitude.

      I find that habit--which is becoming more and more common--to be disrespectful and just wrong. This is a topic between doctors and patients, it's not up for group vote. Until we have more and better resources I just think people should keep the debate general, not personal.

      Thanks so much for your input! I really appreciate it.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 4 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Mental illness is misunderstood to the point where our prison ("justice") systems are incarcerating the mentally ill only because there are no other facilities to offer. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

      "One in three people in the U.S. suffers from mental illness at any given time, and over the course of a life time, 57% of all US citizens will experience a bout of mental illness that requires professional intervention." This information should be more than enough to make anyone take a long hard look at himself and his family.

    • gsidley profile image

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 4 years ago from Lancashire, England

      A great hub!

      Fully endorse your rebuttals of Myths 1, 2 and 5.

      As my own hubs show, I have issues with the overuse of medication and western psychiatry's enduring habit of over diagnosing mental illness. I also refute the "illness like any other" mantra that I believe is associated with many disadvantages for people with mental health problems.

      I'm your latest follower and look forward to a lively debate!