Understanding surrounding mental health has improved significantly over the past decade, but there are still many misconceptions about the subject.
One of the more surprising myths about mental health is explained by the United States Department of Health & Human Services on their webpage “Mental Health Myths and Facts.” Here, they reveal that the phrase, “mental health problems don’t affect me” (A. 2013, p.1), is often less true than those uttering the words would like to believe. According to Mental Health Facts in America, “43.8 million adults experience mental illness in a given year” (2017). That equates to one in five adults.
Despite mental health’s prevalence in America, many refuse to admit that they are struggling. Psychology Today explained in the 2016 article, “Why Do We Fear Mental Illness?” that the majority of people’s initial response to discovering someone is suffering from a mental health problem is to either reject the idea or ignore them: “most people shy away from or avoid someone experiencing a mental health emergency,” explains author of the article, Peggy Drexler Ph.D. “They think whatever the person is going through is ‘personal,’” (Drexler 2016, p. 2). Understandably, when someone begins to recognize their own mental health problems they don’t know how to respond. It’s far easier to pretend the issues don’t exist or to make the claim “mental health problems don’t affect me” (A. 2013, p.1), than it is to engage the problem head-on. Reasons for this avoidance include a fear of stigmatization, comparing personal situations to others and a lack of education.
There are hundreds of psychological disorders, ranging from Body Dysmorphic Disorder to Anxiety Disorder to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Each contains its own set of difficulties, yet the label “mental health” often groups them all together. By clustering all mental illnesses under this umbrella term, it becomes easier to confuse the general public. This can lead to the reinforcement of false information, thereby stigmatizing anyone who is dealing with a psychiatric disorder. This stigmatization promotes the spread of harmful myths, which may cause people with mental illnesses to feel embarrassed about a part of themselves that they are already struggling to maintain.
The United States Department of Health & Human Services lists “people with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable” (A. 2013, p. 3) and “people with mental health needs, even those who are managing their mental illness, cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job” (A. 2013, p. 4) as two of the more common myths surrounding mental health. It’s unsurprising that people fear labeling themselves as mental health patients, given they would not only be seen as struggling from the symptoms of their mental illness, but in many cases, they risk being assigned all of the negative qualities of every psychological disorder.
Take the popular NPR podcast Invisibilia’s episode “Frame of Reference.” In this episode, the two show hosts speak with an unnamed woman who has spent her whole life misunderstanding situations that are happening around her. Throughout childhood she is mercilessly bullied, but can’t figure out why the other children don’t like her. When she enters medical school and eventually opens her own practice she discovers it is difficult for her to find people who enjoy working on her team. It is not until she learns about Asperger Syndrome that she realizes she possessed all the characteristics of someone with the mental illness. After a long period of rejecting the notion that she truly has a psychiatric disorder, she got in contact with a professional who now helps her better navigate the world around her. Still, she has never told her friends, family or co-workers about her diagnosis. While she knows that bringing attention to her illness could assist other’s in understanding her behavior, she worries she could lose credibility as a practicing doctor. The same woman who overcame bullying and years of medical school while struggling with a mental disorder that even she did not understand, now fears anyone discovering that she is not “normal” (Rosin 2016, n.p.). This is a perfect example of the myths pointed out in “Mental Health Myths and Facts.” Perhaps if more people understood that those struggling from psychological disorders are in the majority and if the label of “mental health” didn’t possess such a negative connotation, this woman would feel more comfortable speaking openly about her Asperger Syndrome.
The stigma surrounding mental illness does not have the monopoly on why so many avoid their own psychological disorders. Another primary reason is something blogger Paul Angone refers to as “Obsessive Comparison Disorder”, a.k.a. the new OCD (Angone 2017, p. 2). As mental illness becomes mainstream, those suffering from psychological disorders can more easily talk themselves out of receiving help. With movies and television series like To the Bone and Thirteen Reasons Why showing up on major media platforms, depicting the worst-case scenarios as true mental health patients, of course those who skip a meal a day or perform self-harm will not feel the need to seek help. Instead they can bargain with themselves until they no longer feel there is anything wrong: “I’m not as skinny as Lily Collins in her anorexia movie, so I must be okay.”
The lack of education surrounding mental health prevails. True, psychological disorders are better understood than ever before, but as seen by “Mental Health Myths and Facts” there is still some ways to go before most people will feel comfortable addressing their own mental health. This change can be made by bringing the existence and understanding of mental illnesses to individuals at a younger age.
“The start of many mental health conditions most often occurs in adolescence,” explains the National Association on Mental Health. “Half of individuals living with mental illness experience onset by the age of 14. This number jumps to 75% by the age of 24” (NAMI 2017, p. 1). Struggling with psychiatric disorders can be difficult, but what’s more difficult—as seen by the woman interviewed on Invisibilia—is not understanding the mental disorder you are dealing with. High school students learn about Sexually Transmitted Infections and substance abuse, but often receive little explanation as to what encompasses mental health. When the discussion does include psychological disorders, it usually only focuses on eating disorders, despite the fact that, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.” (A. 2017, p. 1).
School is meant to shape adolescence into functional adults. By the time they graduate from high school they should be proficient writers, understand aspects of science that can translate outside the classroom, be well-read in classic literature, etc. Given that so many adults suffer from mental illnesses, it seems odd that being able to recognize and address psychiatric disorders is not also viewed as important. Organizations like Teen Mental Health and the New York State Psychiatric Association hope to change this, by developing educational plans for high schools that will teach students more about different types of psychiatric disorders.
Myths surrounding mental health have led to self-shaming, which prevents those struggling with psychiatric disorders from addressing their illness. Hopefully as stigma’s change, comparisons lesson and schools educate more on mental health, the myths will retire.
For the complete list of “Mental Health Myths and Facts,” please click here.
Alphabetical List of Mental Disorders. (2016, September 02). Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://mental-health-matters.com/psychological-disorders/alphabetical-list-of-mental-disorders/
Angone, P. (2017, March 19). 3 Ways to Cure Obsessive Comparison Disorder. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from http://allgroanup.com/featured/obsessive-comparison-disorder/
Drexler, P. (2016, January 08). Why Do We Fear Mental Illness? Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-gender-ourselves/201601/why-do-we-fear-mental-illness
Mental Health Facts [PDF]. (n.d.). NAMI. https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
NAMI. (2017). Retrieved September 10, 2017, from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Public-Policy/Mental-Health-in-Schools
Rosin, H., & Spiegel, A. (2016, July 8). Frame of Reference. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/484359511/frame-of-reference