In terms of longevity, psychology and mental health are relatively new fields. It was not until Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychology lab in 1879 that the study of human thought and behavior moved into scientific study.
Since this time, psychology has moved our understanding of the mind further than ever before, giving us insight into how our brains work and why we, as humans, do the things that we do.
In 1952, the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was published, giving psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists a reference point to consider when treating patients with mental health issues.
The DSM helped identify specific mental disorders and allow for specialized treatment rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
While the field of psychology advanced, the mainstream understanding of mental health issues did not.
Mental health remained a taboo subject to most of the public throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s and with little understanding or education on the topic, anyone with a mental health “issue” was considered strange and unpredictable - someone to be feared or scorned.
Despite more recent advances regarding public views on mental health, there are still a number of mental health myths that continue to flourish.
In an effort to address these myths and set the record straight, the following are 5 common mental health myths debunked.
Myth #1: Mental Health Issues Equal “Crazy”
For much of the past, the public considered people who struggle with mental health issues “off”, “crazy”, or “not right in the head”.
These derogatory phrases allowed societies to disregard and ignore people with mental health issues because they were seen as less than.
It did not matter if you struggled with a diagnosis or just felt anxious or depressed, if you had problems with mental health you were “crazy” and therefore treated as if you were not an actual person with thoughts and feelings.
There is no such thing as “crazy”. Mental health problems manifest on a spectrum, from temporary feelings and thoughts that inhibit your daily life to life-long diagnosable conditions that require medication to manage.
Sometimes mental health problems cause people to exhibit non-typical behavior or speech.
This, however, does not make them incapable of thinking or feeling. Everyone dealing with mental illness should be treated compassionately and humanely.
Myth #2: Mental Health Problems are a Fringe Problem
For much of the 20th century, people with mental health problems were kept hidden. Massive psychiatric asylums were built where men, women, and children were sent for mental health issues.
According to Historycollection.com, only 27% of patients stayed for a year or less, indicating that most asylum patients spend their entire lives locked up and hidden away.
This attitude of sweeping mental illness under the rug has created the belief that mental health is a fringe problem, not a wide-reaching human problem.
The truth is that mental health problems are more common than many people think. Here are the facts about mental illness in America:
- 20% of adults experience mental health issues
- 5.7 million adults live with bipolar disorder
- 17.3 million adults and 1.9 million children live with major depressive disorder
- 2.6 million adults live with schizophrenia
- 17.4% of children between 2 and 8 years old live with a mental health disorder
- 40 million adults struggle with some type of anxiety disorder
Additionally, suicide, which is often caused by mental health problems, is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and has increased 33% over the past two decades.
If anything, it seems as though mental health issues are becoming a more mainstream issue rather than a fringe concern.
Myth #3: Trauma isn’t a Real Thing
In some circles, trauma is not considered a legitimate mental health issue. Many people grew up with the idea that when something bad happens it is just part of life and you have to get up and move on.
The idea that a concept called trauma exists or has any real bearing on a person is often disregarded. People who talk about trauma are considered complainers, troublemakers, or weaklings who need to just “get over it” and quit talking about what is bothering them.
The truth is that trauma is a very real condition.
Research continues to show that when you encounter a traumatic event it affects your brain in observable, measurable ways. Trauma researchers have shown that trauma, especially complex trauma such as childhood abuse, physically rewires the brain.
The body’s natural response to dangers is to fight, flee, or freeze. Trauma keeps us stuck in this state, keeping our nervous system on high alert even in safe situations. This leads to toxic stress, which adversely affects the body.
A brain impacted by trauma actually inhibits the function of the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that helps us make conscious, logical decisions. This makes us act in ways that don’t make sense, and leads to heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our system.
Find out more about how trauma affects the brain in this helpful video.
Myth #4: Mentally Ill People are Violent
Many people believe that people with mental illnesses are violent. This is no doubt due in part to the representation of mental illness in media, books, movies, and television.
People who harm others are portrayed as having mental health issues such as PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, postpartum depression, and many other conditions.
Often, mental illness is blamed or represented as the cause of violent behavior.
The truth is that the link between mental illness and violence is overblown and complex.
One point of consideration is that the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness are not violent. On the whole, mental health issues do not make someone more violent or aggressive towards others.
A second way of debunking this myth is to take a deeper look at the link between violence and some mental illnesses.
According to the American Psychological Association, when violence does occur in a person with a mental illness, it is far more likely that the driving factor behind the violence is not the mental illness itself.
In most cases, violent behavior is the result of circumstances that co-occur with mental illness. These circumstances include traumatic childhood experiences, environmental factors, such as homelessness or unemployment, and substance abuse.
Myth #5: Character Flaws Cause Mental Illness
The prevailing belief by society over the last many decades has been that people with mental health issues have a character flaw that causes their problems.
The thought is that those with mental illness or mental health problems bring it on themselves by being too weak. That if they were just stronger or “better” in some way, that they wouldn’t experience mental health issues.
Essentially, people think that mental health issues indicate a personal failing on your part. This leads to suffering on the part of someone struggling with a mental illness, who may feel ashamed to talk about it or get help.
The truth is that mental illness and mental health struggles can affect anyone at any point in their life. Mental health problems are caused by a number of factors, almost all of which are out of the person’s control.
Biologically-based mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder, OCD, postpartum depression, and major depressive disorder, are caused by chemical imbalances, genetics, and environmental stressors.
Mental health issues and conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD are often brought on by events or abuse that is perpetrated on the person struggling with the disorder.
Children who are abused and who later struggle with their mental health are not the result of moral failing or a character flaw. They are victims of abuse whose brains are acting normally in the face of such experiences.
Fight Against Mental Health Stigmas
Thankfully, the outlook towards mental health and those struggling with mental health issues are beginning to change. This is due to more widely available education on mental health, as well as social change movements that normalize open discussion about mental health.
Today, more and more people recognize that mental health issues, whether they are a temporary experience or long-term diagnosis, are nothing to be ashamed of.
These shifts have made great progress in the fight against the stigmatization of those with mental health issues.
However, we still have a long way to go as a society to learn the truth about mental illnesses and debunk outdated thinking patterns. Do your part by spreading the truth about mental health-related issues and help educate others who may be operating from old information.
If you need support for your own mental health, help with supporting a loved one who is struggling, or want to learn more about mental health issues, visit the resources below.