10 Myths about Mental Health & Illness

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As many of you know I work in mental health education. This means that on a daily basis I come across myths around mental health and illness. Whilst in the past 5 years I have definitely seen an improvement with education on this topic; we still have a way to go. Here are the 10 myths I hear most often.

I Don’t Have Mental Health

This is one of the most important myths around mental health. Whilst I believe knowledge of the difference between mental health and mental illness is improving, I still hear people using the terms interchangeably. But they’re not the same. We are finally speaking about the 1 in 4 adults in the UK who have a diagnosable mental health problem in a given year. Or the 1 in 8 5 – 19 year olds who had a mental disorder when surveyed in 2017. But we still need to speak about the 4 in 4 adults and the 8 in 8 young people who have mental health. By virtue of being human we all have mental health and we need to look after it just as we look after our physical health.

You Can’t Recover from Mental Illness

Many of us still perceive a diagnosis of a mental illness as a life sentence. Something incurable which will prevent us living a ‘normal’ life. But myths of this type are a product of stigma and we need to re-balance these old messages. Whilst it is true that many people will live with a diagnosis their whole lives. And yes, at times, it may prevent them doing certain normative activities. These things aren’t mutually exclusive with recovery.

lights saying think about things differently
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Rather, it’s our understanding of recovery that is wrong. When talking about mental illness we need to tweak what we mean by recovery. In mental health terms we’re not always talking about the cessation of symptoms. Instead, we’re talking about learning to live alongside our symptoms or our conditions to enable us to live the lives we want to lead. On our own terms with our own input on recovery. Of course, mental health illnesses will range from mild to severe within a diagnosis. And some diagnoses will have a more profound impact on one’s lives. But that still doesn’t prevent recovery.

For more on my journey to recovery read here or on being held back by recovery read here.

For an excellent introduction to recovery from Pat Deegan watch here.

We Shouldn’t Ask About Suicide

If we’re concerned that someone may be at risk of suicide then the right thing to do is to ask about it. But, of course, we must make sure we are able and feel comfortable to do so.

If you’re interested in learning how to support someone who may be at risk of suicide then I encourage you to attend training. Accredited training options include Mental Health First Aid, Suicide First Aid and ASIST Training among others.

Whichever training you choose, you’ll find that they all agree that the best thing to do if you’re concerned that someone is at risk is to ask. As a Mental Health First Aid Instructor I often meet with resistance when we teach asking about suicide. Most prominent are concerns that asking about suicide will encourage or give someone the idea to take their own lives. But we know that best practice is not only to ask but to ask as directly and clearly as possible.

Asking removes the burden of starting the conversation from the person in question. And by asking you can show that you are open to the conversation and won’t be judgemental. When you start the conversation you relieve them of the responsibility and fears of how you may react. If they’re not considering suicide then they will tell you as such. Other myths around suicide also include that those who talk about suicide are not considering it. We know that this should be considered a warning sign and is a situation where we should ask. But I can’t emphasise this enough, whilst asking about suicide is the right thing to do, and I hope you never have to ask, please do think about your own support networks if supporting someone and undertake some training.

Organisations to signpost to in the UK include Samaritans, Shout, CALM and Papyrus UK

Eating Disorders are About Weight

Other unhelpful and stigmatizing myths about eating disorders include that they are about weight. Number one, this underestimates the severity of the condition; eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition. Secondly, it buys into the myth that eating disorders are primarily a female issue rooted in narcissim or teenage weight problems. None of which is true.

Whilst there is a disproportionate number of women diagnosed with eating disorders, we can’t forget that men experience eating disorders too. And the lower prevalence of eating disorders amongst men may be due to the stigma about eating disorders being a female issue, preventing men from accessing the support they need and therefore showing up in statistics. Eating disorders are complicated territory and it’s not possible to go into the varied reasons someone may develop or experience one. But suffice it to say, they’re not all about weight. And articles in the media which focus on weight or use photos or images about weight to talk about eating disorders only add fuel to the already blazing fire.

To sign or find out more about #DumptheScales campaign click here

OCD is about Cleanliness or Tidyness

Tell me if this sounds familiar, “I’m so tidy, I’m practically OCD” or “Their house is obsessively clean, it’s so OCD”. Using any mental health diagnosis as an adjective can be harmful. Perpetuating these myths shows an ignorance about the condition and in some cases a lack of compassion. We need to acknowledge this problematic use of language. Because OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is not about cleanliness or neatness. Whilst it may exhibit itself in some people in this capacity, everyone’s experience of the diagnosis will be nuanced.

OCD is a form of anxiety disorder and at root there are very real fears or concerns driving people to repetitive, and seemingly obsessive, behaviours. Driven by a fear of catastrophe, for example, a loved one coming to harm. If we were to truly understand OCD from the perspective of someone with lived experience, we will at least have a microscopic knowledge of what it must be like to live with these fears and have our behaviours dictated in such a traumatic way.

For more on Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorders read here.

For 4 Ways to Reframe Anxiety read here.

Mental Illnesses aren’t as Severe as Physical Illnesses

This is one of the myths which comes up most. Despite pledges that we will get parity of esteem for mental illness with physical illness. This continues to be a dream rather than a reality. This lack of equality only feeds the idea that mental illness isn’t as severe as physical illness. Or that it isn’t as deserving of support and help.

You are not alone written on a board
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In the UK, disability rankings weight schizophrenia as the highest ranking disability above any physical health problem. More so than an untreated spinal cord injury. Likewise mild depression is ranked alongside mild epilepsy and moderate depression alongside moderate dementia. Severe anxiety, which often gets underestimated as high stress etc. is ranked with a severe stroke with long term consequences. There needs to be more awareness of the huge and long term impact that a mental health illness can have on one’s life. And the correct level of support and treatment available for both mental and physical illness.

Those with a Diagnosis of a Mental Illness are Violent

This is one of the oldest myths. It’s rooted in stigma and is perpetuated in society but most particularly by the media. Disproportionately news stories involving violence will mention any history of mental health problems. Often when they are either historic or not relevant to the story. For example, during the gun violence in the US in August 2019 Trump scapegoated the mentally ill as being responsible. Despite the claims of media and politicians, research suggests that someone with a diagnosis of a mental illness is more likely to be a victim of a crime than a perpetrator. And yet, 1/3 of the population continue to think that people with a diagnosis are violent.

We Shouldn’t Talk about Mental Health

We all fear putting our foot in our mouth and getting things wrong from time to time. Speaking about mental health is no different. In fact, it’s often a topic that many of us feel disempowered to talk about. We’ve not been talking about mental health for long enough for us to have an accurate understanding of the information. Nowadays, whilst we’re finally talking about it, messaging can be mixed and stigma continues to be perpetuated. It’s hard to know what to believe and what to take with a pinch of salt. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about it.

Only by educating ourselves and those around us will we fight stigma and discrimination. Moreover, encouraging people to understand their own mental health is integral as a preventative measure. And when people do get unwell, education will mean people are more likely to spot it early, feel empowered to request support and crucially know where to turn. So, if you’re unsure about what to say, ask. Get knowledgeable by asking questions. Explore information shared by credible sources. Don’t let silence increase stigma.

For more on why awareness days are important read here.

What mental health or mental illness myths have you heard? Let us know below!

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12 thoughts on “10 Myths about Mental Health & Illness

  1. Hi Emma. Very enlightening, thank you. I have been guilty, in the past, of saying things like “I’m a bit OCD when it comes to …”. However, I read another mental health article a while back and since then have made a conscious effort not to say things like that. Publishing articles like this will, I hope, continue to educate people and make them more compassionate and understanding.

  2. This is wonderfully written. I have a tough time with “you can’t recover from mental illness.” As someone who has dealt with severe depression and anxiety since childhood, it’s hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. I have to keep reminding myself that it is possible to say goodbye to it one day.

  3. You make a lot of really good points in this post. As someone who used to have an eating disorder and OCD, I can say definitively that they were not really about weight and cleanliness. It was definitely a means of gaining control over my environment and having such high anxiety I didn’t know how to cope. Great post!

  4. I’ve heard a number of these too just from friends and family or when I was a teacher. It is so good that people like yourself are working to end the stigma (and misinformation) around mental illness. It has definitely improved, and that is very encouraging. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Such an important post! I am 100% behind you with the ocd thing, mine is obsessive thoughts which I am thankful hasn’t been triggered in the longest time.

  6. Yes I love this post 👏🏻👏🏻 the point about eating disorders is something I’ve heard a lot and I can’t stress enough how much it isn’t all to do with weight! often it’s about control. This is a big problem because people assume you have to look a certain way to have an eating disorder which isn’t the case at all. So thank you for getting the word out there!

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