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February 7, 2019

6 Misconceptions About Mental Illness

Around half of people who have chemical addictions also have co-occurring mental illness, typically depression. And while the medical form of depression may be an illness without definite cause or cure, it’s pretty depressing (not to mention conducive to relapse) just dealing with peers or family who don’t understand what you’re going through. If you’re in recovery from addiction and also dealing with a co-occurring mental illness—or if you’re struggling with mental illness and tempted to turn to drugs to numb the pain—this article can help by educating you and your loved ones on what’s not true or helpful.

MISCONCEPTION #1: MENTAL ILLNESS IS EASY TO RECOGNIZE

The truth: When most people think of mental illness, they think of someone who wanders around in their own little world, mumbling to themselves and either ignoring whatever’s around them, or reacting violently to the most innocuous happenings. Obviously, someone who behaves that way would stand out in a crowd. But it’s not at all typical of the majority of people with mental illness. Medical experts consistently agree that as many as 25 percent of the population have some form of mental disorder: if that many people were completely out of touch with reality, civilization would quickly collapse.

Many people have mental illness for years without realizing it themselves. And not just because the illness affects their judgment: they’re as influenced as anyone by the idea that it can’t be real illness if it isn’t obvious. If you regularly feel unhappy without cause, or feel convictions you intellectually know are unreasonable, or if you’ve ever thought about suicide, get professionally evaluated.

MISCONCEPTION #2: PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS ARE “CRAZY” AND VIOLENT

This is the most extreme version of the belief that mental illness makes itself obvious. The violent lunatic or murderous psychopath (real or fictional) may make good media fodder, but most people with mental illness are more likely to be taken advantage of than to turn on others. Fear of mental-illness-induced violence has led to more than one tragedy when law enforcement shot before asking questions, so police agencies are increasingly initiating crisis intervention programs to train their officers in defusing mental-illness episodes.

MISCONCEPTION #3: PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS HAVE LOW INTELLIGENCE

The truth: Although some mental disorders such as Down’s syndrome cause people to be born with low intelligence, mental illnesses affect perception of reality, not IQ. Many accomplished and brilliant people have had mental illness.

MISCONCEPTION #4: MENTAL ILLNESS CAN BE OVERCOME BY SHEER WILLPOWER

The truth: The flip side of the idea that people with mental illness stand out is the idea that people who seem overall “normal” can’t possibly have mental illness. And because of negative perceptions surrounding mental illness, many who have it keep it secret. The primary danger is that mental-illness symptoms—low energy, paranoid or obsessive thoughts, depression or mood swings—will manifest themselves and be met with impatience or blame (“You’re just being difficult”). This generates either “no one understands or cares” feelings, or “what’s wrong with me?” self-blame. And such feelings can easily lead a person to turn to drugs or even suicide.

If you take away only one thing from this article, let it be this: Never tell anyone who might have mental illness to “snap out of it!”

MISCONCEPTION #5: A PERSON WHO FUNCTIONS WELL IN EVERYDAY DUTIES CAN’T HAVE MENTAL ILLNESS

The truth: Just as there are many high-functioning people with chemical addictions, there are many high-functioning people with mental illness. In many cases, work and everyday duties actually curb the worst symptoms by creating structure. On the other hand, high-functioning people are at high risk for avoiding professional help, often because they fear that official diagnosis and treatment would taint their reputations and destroy everything they’ve worked to build.

MISCONCEPTION #6: A PERSON WITH MENTAL ILLNESS IS PERMANENTLY INCAPACITATED

The truth: Not only are many people capable of functioning with mental illness, such disorders (like addiction disorders) are treatable. Even if someone was doing just fine to all appearances, the proper combination of medication and therapy can significantly improve functioning and increase self-esteem as well.

That said, most mental illnesses (like addiction disorders) are chronic, meaning they can be treated and managed but not really “cured.” As with chronic physical illnesses, even if all symptoms disappear the person lives with a high risk of relapse, which gets worse if they are careless about managing personal triggers.

There’s no cause for despair, though. If you’ve been diagnosed with mental illness, you may need to make lifestyle changes, but your life needn’t be ruined. With careful management and self-understanding—and an understanding of the real facts—lifelong recovery is entirely possible.

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