Mental health is a vital part of our health and well-being. Unfortunately, there are many myths about mental illness. Dispelling these myths and knowing the truth about mental illness can increase our empathy and support for those with mental health conditions. It can also ensure that stigma does not prevent us from seeking help ourselves when and should we need it.
What is a mental illness?
First, it’s important to understand what it means to have a mental illness. The National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) offers a simple definition: Mental illness is “a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior, or mood.” It can impact one’s ability to function daily and their relationships with others.
Some well-known conditions include anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are also common. Others include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Now, let’s shed light on some of the myths that surround mental health.
- Myth 1: They are rare. The truth is that mental health conditions are quite common. They can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or how much money they have. NAMI reports that one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. The Mental Health Coalition (MHC) reports depression is a leading cause of disability. MHC also estimates one in four individuals will have a mental health issue in their lifetime.
- Myth 2: They’re a sign of weakness. One dangerous myth is that mental illness is a sign of weakness. Mental health is not a reflection of personal strength or weakness. Many factors can affect your mental health, including genetics and life experiences.
- Myth 3: They’re no big deal. Almost everyone has experienced stress, sadness, and anxiety. Sometimes, this can lead people who haven’t experienced clinical mental health conditions to dismiss or minimize other people’s struggles. While it can be helpful to use our own experiences to empathize with others, it’s important to understand that clinical depression is not the same as feeling depressed or sad from time to time, and clinical anxiety is different from feeling anxious before a stressful event.
- Myth 4: Seeking help is unnecessary. We seek help when something is wrong with our physical health, and it is just as important to address our mental health concerns. Sadly, over 26 million people in the United States have a mental health disorder that will go untreated. Seeking professional help is a critical first step toward recovery.
- Myth 5: They’re permanent. The idea that these conditions cannot be successfully treated is also a myth. In reality, mental health conditions can be managed. Behavioral health providers offer effective treatments for many conditions. Treatments may include therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes. The good news is that with appropriate treatment and support, recovery and management is possible.
- Myth 6: Only “crazy” people have mental health issues. Those who suffer from mental health conditions can experience discrimination and isolation. How we talk about these conditions is key. Labeling individuals as “crazy” or “insane” only adds to the stigma. It’s essential to always choose respectful and empathetic language.
Things to look out for
The following is a list of common warning signs of a possible mental health condition. If someone is experiencing one or two, they may need evaluation. Someone who experiences several signs at once should seek help. Those with thoughts of suicide or harming others need immediate attention.
- Changes in sleep routine, appetite, or personal care.
- Mood changes, rapid shifts in emotions, depressed feelings, or increased irritability.
- Withdrawal, avoidance, or loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed.
- Reduced performance at school or work, or increased absenteeism.
- Problems with concentration, memory, or logical thought.
- Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, or touch and avoiding over-stimulating situations.
- Nervousness, fear, or suspicion of others.
- Unusual or uncharacteristic behavior.
- Changes in relationships with coworkers, family, or friends.
The “hidden signs”
Not all signs of a mental health condition are obvious to others. If you are experiencing any of the following, you should seek help:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Thoughts of harming yourself or others
- Constant fatigue
- Feeling suddenly fearful or unable to tell what’s real and what’s not
- Feeling numb or losing interest in activities or people you once enjoyed.
Stigma is a negative attitude or idea about a certain trait or condition. Unfortunately, there is still stigma surrounding mental illness. As a result, those suffering from these conditions may feel embarrassed or ashamed. This can lead to increased isolation, withdrawal, and hesitance to seek help, which can lead to worsening of the condition.
There are things we can all do to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health:
- Talk openly about the facts of mental illness with others.
- Understand that mental health conditions are treatable, and help is available.
- Be sensitive to others. Choose your language carefully and avoid labels that have negative connotations.
- Increase awareness of the stigma of mental illness. Point out inaccuracies when talking to others.
You can learn more about stigma and how to cope with it here. How to Cope with Stigma When You Have a Mental Illness (verywellmind.com)
The physical impact
While mental health is directly associated with the brain, it also impacts the body. It can increase stress, disrupt sleep, and affect appetite. It can impact a person’s ability to engage in behaviors we know have a positive impact on health, like eating healthy foods and exercising. Many mental health conditions are also associated with substance use, including smoking and alcohol use, which can have negative effects on the body over time.
As a result, a mental health condition may increase the risk for dangerous conditions. Those include:
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
That is why getting treatment for a mental health condition is so important.
Ways to improve your mental health
There are many ways we can improve our mental health and well-being. Experts such as psychiatrists and therapists can offer therapy and/or medication. Their proven techniques and strategies can help you feel better.
There are other things you can do to improve your mental health too.
- Exercise. Regular exercise can reduce stress and depression and improve your mood. It’s good for your physical health too.
- Eat well. Nutrition plays a key role in keeping the mind and body healthy.
- Meditation. This ancient practice is a way for your mind and body to focus inward. It can help some people practice awareness and acceptance of their thoughts and feelings, increasing their ability to regulate their emotions. Learn how to get started here. How to Start a Meditation Practice (verywellmind.com)
- Journaling. Writing things down and reflecting on our experiences can help us process our thoughts and emotions rather than dissociating from them. This can reduce stress, improve mood, and help us understand our feelings. Learn more about it and how to get started here. 15 Benefits of Journaling and Tips for Getting Started (healthline.com)
- Stay connected. Keep in touch with family and friends. Social connections are important for your well-being and can help reduce stress. Join a community group or volunteer to make new connections, too.
How to support a loved one with a mental illness
If someone you know is experiencing challenges with their mental health, there are ways you can help:
- Be sure you know the warning signs (see above).
- Once you’ve identified that there may be a problem, it’s time to start the conversation, and that can be difficult. The most important thing is to let your loved one know you are concerned and are there to support them. After you share your concerns, if the person is willing to speak further, try to listen more than you talk. Try to avoid offering simple “fixes” for their problems, and if they’re not ready to talk about it or get professional help, let them know that you care and are there when they’re ready.
- Do your research. Learn more about the condition by relying on trusted sources.
- Offer to help. Find local therapists or support groups. Offer to assist with transportation or childcare or attend treatment with them.
- Consider seeking support for yourself if you are having trouble coping with your loved one’s mental health condition. Consider seeing a therapist yourself or attending a support group like NAMI’s Friends and Family groups.
- Get more tips here. Psychiatry.org – Helping a Loved One Cope with Mental Illness
It’s important that we all understand the truth about mental health. Together we can create more compassion and empathy for those who need support.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health issue, help is available. For support, call 988, text 988, or chat at 988lifeline.org.
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