Find out how to separate mental illness fact from fiction and learn the truth about mental health conditions.
There are several myths about mental illness and stigmas that those with mental health conditions must endure. Misconceptions about mental illness are due to a lack of understanding about what it actually is. Mental illnesses are real diseases that affect people, just like cancer or diabetes. Contrary to popular belief, facts confirm that those affected by mental health conditions cannot control their illness. Learn additional myths and facts about mental illness to help increase awareness and break the stigma.
Myth #1: Mental illness can’t affect me
Fact: Mental illness can affect anyone.
Mental illness statistics show that 1 in 5 people in the United States will experience a mental illness in a given year. About 1 in 25 will experience a serious mental illness that interferes with one or more of their major life activities. While there are some demographics that are more likely than others to have a mental illness, anyone can develop one. Everyone — from a homeless person to a stockbroker on Wall Street — can be at risk of developing a mental health disorder.
One reason that people think that they will never develop a mental disorder is that they fail to understand that mental health conditions are legitimate illnesses. They tend to believe that the only way they could develop a mental illness is if they willingly let themselves. Unfortunately, for those afflicted by mental health issues, while they can control their treatment and management of their illness, they cannot control if it develops in the first place.
Myth #2: Mental health disorders aren’t “real” illnesses
Fact: Mental health disorders are real and legitimate illnesses.
Many people wonder about the validity of mental illness, such as, “Is mental illness a disability?”, “Is mental illness a medical condition?” and even “Is mental illness real?” People who wonder about the legitimacy of mental illness do so because they fail to understand that mental disorders are diagnosable medical conditions. Even though they may not have a physical manifestation, mental health disorders can cause significant impairment to an individual’s well-being.
Mental illness is caused by a combination of factors, with genetic and chemical imbalances playing a large role in its development. Brain scans in some patients with mental disorders show certain areas of the brain that are different shapes or sizes compared to the rest of the population. There are measurable, physical problems within the brain that can lead to the altered thought processes common with mental illness.
Myth #3: Bad parenting causes mental illness
Fact: Parenting techniques have very little influence on the development of mental illness.
While it is true that parenting has very little influence on mental illness, there are some small ways in which parenting could influence its development. This should not be surprising, as parenting shapes the way people view themselves and the world.
There are two main risk factors for mental illness that parents have some influence over:
- Severe trauma. Someone who physically or emotionally abuses their child on a regular basis, making them feel insecure and unloved, raises that child’s risk of developing a mental illness later in life.
- Drug or alcohol abuse. The second aspect of parenting that can influence the risk of developing a mental illness is permissiveness of irresponsible drug or alcohol use. Misusing substances early in life can lead to increased risk of mental illness.
While parenting habits may have an influence on the above risk factors, it does not mean that their children will develop mental health disorders.
Myth #4: People with mental health issues are dangerous
Fact: Most people with mental illnesses are not violent.
One prominent mental health stigma is that those with mental illnesses are dangerous. Many people believe that mental illness and violence go hand in hand. While there are some subsets of mental illness that increase the likelihood that people will act violently, in most cases, mental illness does not increase a person’s chances of becoming dangerous. A study that was cited by the Harvard School of Medicine showed that only 18% of those who had a mental illness were likely to commit a violent act. The remaining 82% of people who had a mental illness were not.
The assumed connection between mental illness and violence is often due to the unknown nature and lack of understanding about mental health conditions. Mental illness often affects the way that people think and may affect their behavior, but it typically does not make them more violent towards others.
Myth #5: Mental illness is just an excuse for poor behavior
Fact: People with mental health issues are often unable to control their behavior.
Those who dismiss mental illness as not being real often then blame any negative behaviors by a person with mental illness as being deliberate. They believe the afflicted person should be able to control their thoughts and actions.
Unfortunately, chemical changes in the brain or brain structure that occur with mental illness actually change the way that the person is able to think and rationalize. Because mental illness is something that many do not struggle with, they don’t understand what it is like to live with. While some behaviors may be controlled, depending on the type of mental illness, many people are not able to fully control their behaviors.
Myth #6: Mental illness is a sign of weakness
Fact: Mental illness does not occur because of weakness.
Many people who do not struggle with mental illness think that having a mental health condition somehow indicates that a person who does is weak. This stigma is due, in part, to the fact that mental illness cannot be seen or easily diagnosed. Because of this, people tend to assume that mental illness must be due to a person’s lack of ability to cope with the basic stresses of life. In reality, the changes in brain chemistry or structure that occur with mental illness can decrease a person’s ability to cope with increased stressors on a chemical level.
The stigma associated with mental illness is very unique. It would be considered highly offensive to tell someone diagnosed with brain cancer that their illness developed because they were weak or just couldn’t handle the stresses of life. Yet somehow, to say the same thing about mental illness is not only considered acceptable by society but is generally regarded as true. While public education is making some progress in educating others about mental illness, there is still much work that needs to be done in reducing this stigma.
Myth #7: Children don’t develop mental health conditions
Fact: Mental illness can occur at any age.
It is estimated that 13% of children between 8–15 years old will develop or experience a mental health condition. Mental health conditions in children do tend to manifest differently than in adults. Therefore, children’s mental health disorders may be dismissed as behavioral problems. Unfortunately, children can develop clinical depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
There are many mental health conditions that can lead to behavioral issues, so it can be difficult sometimes to distinguish between which types of misbehavior are a normal part of childhood and which are symptomatic of an underlying mental illness. Someone who believes that their child may have a mental illness should consult with a psychiatrist to see if their child’s behavior is normal. While mental illness is less common in children, it is still possible for children to develop mental health issues.
Myth #8: Individuals with mental health problems can’t work
Fact: Many individuals with mental illnesses lead normal, productive lives.
There is a stigma that people with mental illnesses are not productive and are not able to hold jobs or function in the workplace. However, just because someone has a mental illness does not mean that they are any less likely to be able to succeed in life.
While it is true that some mental illnesses may cause severe impairments, most mental illnesses can be managed with therapy and medication. Most people are surprised to learn that within their circle of friends, co-workers and family members are several people who have been diagnosed with and are being treated for a mental health disorder. Mental illness is quite common, but many who struggle with it do not openly discuss it because of the associated stigma.
Myth #9: People with mental health disorders lack intelligence
Fact: Mental illness does not typically affect intelligence.
While many people mistakenly assume that there is a connection between mental health and intelligence, this is not normally true. Mental illnesses tend to affect people’s behavior or their perception of the world or life. This does not affect their ability to reason or make logical choices. Unfortunately, the stigma against those with mental illnesses often leads to them being described as “disturbed” or “not right in the head.” These descriptions, in turn, lead to others equating mental illness with decreased intelligence, even though this is factually inaccurate.
Myth #10: There’s nothing you can do to help someone struggling with mental health issues
Fact: You can make a difference in the life of someone with a mental health disorder.
People who know someone with a mental health disorder often wonder exactly how to help someone with mental illness. There are several things that you can do to help those with mental illnesses that will be beneficial to them.
If you are talking to someone about their mental illness, find a private place to talk without distractions. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, people who are willing to talk about their condition often prefer to do so in a private setting. Be sensitive to the stigma associated with mental illness and to your own biases. Avoid any statements that are blaming or accusatory in nature, and try to be understanding of the other person’s position. Genuine concern and a listening ear will often help the person you are talking to more than anything else.
One important thing to keep in mind when speaking to someone with a mental illness, especially if their condition involves depression, is the increased risk for self-harm or suicidal ideation. Take any discussion of suicide seriously, and keep in mind that remarks such as “I can’t keep like living like this” or “I don’t know if I can do this anymore” may indicate that the person with mental illness is considering harming themselves. If you think this might be the case, the best approach is to ask up front if they are considering suicide. One way of doing this could be saying something like “You sound like you are tired of dealing with this. Are you thinking about ending your life?” Asking them straightforward questions will normally get a truthful and straightforward response.
If the person you are talking to is considering suicide you should take them to the hospital and get them immediate care. If they will not go with you, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and ask them how to handle the situation or what you can do to immediately help the person you are speaking with.
Myth #11: Therapy doesn’t help those with mental illness
Fact: Therapy has been proven beneficial for individuals with mental health conditions.
Many people wonder about the effectiveness of therapy in helping those with mental illness. While some may be skeptical about the difference if any it could possibly make, therapy has been shown to be a vital part of any mental health treatment plan.
Therapy offers an opportunity for people with mental health issues to voice their thoughts and opinions on what is going on with the course of their illness and gives professionals the opportunity to evaluate the patient’s current state and how they are responding to treatment. Additionally, therapy can be used to help those with mental illness change any thoughts and behaviors that may be harmful to themselves or their well-being. Many therapies have been shown to improve the outcomes of those with mental illness and should not be discounted.
Myth #12: Recovery from mental illness is impossible
Fact: While there may not be a cure, many mental illnesses are treatable.
Those who have recently been diagnosed with a mental illness will wonder if it is possible to fully recover. As health care and understanding of mental illness has progressed, recovery has moved from a far off goal to a distinct possibility. However, even if a person is never able to fully recover from a mental illness, treatment can help them manage their symptoms and experience significantly higher quality of life.
Recovery starts with a diagnosis and understanding that a mental illness exists. Initial treatment will focus on managing the more severe symptoms and regaining control over the activities of life that have been lost. Next steps will focus on accomplishing goals one step at a time.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Health Conditions.” 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.
Mental Health America. “Mental Illness and the Family: Recognizi[…]igns and How to Cope.” 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.
Harvard Mental Health Letter. “Mental illness and violence.” January 2011. Accessed May 28, 2019.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Children’s Mental Health Disorders.” March 12, 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Health By The Numbers.” Accessed June 5, 2019.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Tips For How To Help A Person With Mental Illness.” 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.” 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.
Mental Health America. “Recovery is a Journey.” 2019. Accessed May 28, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.