The 6 Most Common Mental Health Myths
Despite considered efforts across the mental health sector and communities, stigma, fear, and misconceptions about mental health problems persist. This can prevent a person from getting the help they need.
Have you stopped to think about the way you view mental health, how you treat those with mental illness, or any misconceptions or fears you may still hold? Let’s talk through some of the common issues and myths.
Why are mental health problems so misunderstood?
Mental illness has a long history of misunderstanding and fear. Much of this dates back to times when little was understood about the human body and mind. There are many historical factors that have led to mental illness being a taboo topic, including some cultural and religious beliefs. Sadly, this has led to a great deal of suffering, persecution, discrimination, and barriers for problems that are highly treatable and even preventable.
Even now, many people place a certain priority on understanding physical or medical health, while finding mental health or psychological problems more difficult to understand. For example, many people find it easy to talk about a broken arm, a virus or heart disease, but may struggle to talk about mental health problems. It is a learned response and can be changed.
Another reason that mental health can be hard to talk about is because people with mental illness may exhibit challenging symptoms. Anything from social withdrawal, to physical tics, or words and behaviours that might seem ‘strange’, can be confronting. Certain mental health problems such as psychosis, personality disorders, non-suicidal self-injury and suicidality can elicit strong opinions, emotions and perceptions in others. Even more common mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or trauma can be hard to understand and talk about, whether we have been through them ourselves or not.
We are working together across lifetimes of misunderstanding, misconceptions and fear to make the world a safer and more supportive place for people with mental health problems. People hold all sorts of incorrect information and prejudices and it’s time that changed. Let’s explore 6 of the most common myths.
Myth 1: People with mental health problems can’t function in society
This myth can involve concerns that a person with mental health problems is so preoccupied or affected by their problems that they are unproductive, anti-social, incapable or incompetent. It assumes that a person with mental health problems cannot lead a normal or fulfilling life at home, work, school or in community. Some people also assume all mental illness is permanent and continuous rather than temporary or episodal. Both can be true.
Why is this unhelpful?
- It views people with mental health problems as ‘other’ and assumes their differences and needs render them incapable of participating in life and society.
- It leads to exclusion or missed opportunities.
- It decreases connections and lessens a sense of belonging and acceptance.
- It overlooks achievements, skills, strengths and personal value that are inherent.
FACT: People with mental health problems have unique skills, strengths and value. They can play an active and productive role in all aspects of society and life.
People with mental health problems can:
- Positively participate in family life. They can be wonderful parents, carers and family members. They love and are loved.
- Be great friends and participate in social groups and activities.
- Be intelligent, well-educated, productive and highly skilled.
- Hold down jobs and perform highly in the workplace.
- Be active members of community and contribute to society.
- Receive treatments and therapies to manage symptoms to live well, return to normal life after an episode, or recover (every situation is different).
Myth 2: People with mental health problems are scary or dangerous
This myth is based on fears which are usually perpetuated by damaging stereotypes, ill-informed media, or negative talk. There is at times an incorrect assumption that mental illness is synonymous with violence, aggression, or anti-social behaviours.
Why is this unhelpful?
- It unfairly makes assumptions about a person’s behaviours that have no basis.
- It perpetuates fear, stigma, exclusion, persecution and marginalisation of people who are already experiencing challenges.
- It puts people with mental health problems at increased risk of danger or violence from others (contrary to the myth itself).
FACT: Mental health problems should not be feared. There is no reason to assume that someone with mental health problems is a risk to others.
- Only a very small percentage of violent acts occur because of a mental illness. Usually this occurs because the person does not have access to treatment and support and is afraid for their own safety because of the symptoms they are experiencing.
- People with mental health problems are actually more likely to experience violence, aggression or anti-social behaviours towards them, than to engage in such behaviours.
- You are probably around people with mental health problems or mental illness every day, and you may not even notice.
Myth 3: People are to blame for their own mental health problems
This myth is used to lay blame for why a person has mental health problems. Often it serves only to make the person holding the negative belief feel that they could never develop a mental health problem themselves, or to avoid having to actively help another person. At times it is also used as an excuse to justify exclusion, discrimination and prejudice.
Why is this unhelpful?
- It incorrectly assumes mental health problems occur because the person has done something wrong or made bad choices.
- It minimises or diminishes a person with mental health problems.
- It looks for ‘answers’ in the wrong places – rarely grounded in fact and often harmful.
- It focuses on the attitudes, feelings and behaviours of the person passing judgement, not the person needing support.
FACT: Mental health problems can occur for any number of reasons, and the person experiencing them is not to blame.
- Common mental health problems can affect almost anyone. At least 40% of people will experience a common mental health concern in their life time e.g. depression, anxiety, substance use problems (AIHW,2019).
- Symptoms and situations caused by mental health problems are not a choice and are usually something a person cannot control.
- A person with mental health problems cannot just ‘snap out of it’, ‘forget about it’ or ‘do better.’
- People with mental health problems are not seeking attention, making excuses or avoiding aspects of life.
- Some mental illnesses have hereditary, genetic, neurological or biological factors.
- Many mental health problems are caused or worsened by environmental factors outside of a person’s control.
Myth 4: Certain types of people cannot have mental health problems
This myth assumes that certain cohorts of people are somehow immune to mental health problems. For example, it was a common misconception that children could not have mental illness. Others believe that if a person is perceived to have a ‘good life’ e.g. being financially affluent, with a happy family and/or good career, that they cannot experience mental health problems.
Why is this unhelpful?
- It may stop people from recognising early warning signs in someone who is at risk.
- It puts pressure on people to act in a certain way that others expect.
- It incorrectly assumes people’s mental health is defined by social or personal attributes.
- It stops people from being understood as individuals with unique circumstances, needs and strengths.
FACT: Mental illness and mental health problems affect people from all walks of life, and almost all ages and social groups.
- Don’t make assumptions about a person’s mental health or circumstances based on limited information you might have.
- People can experience mental health problems regardless of: age, sex, gender, socio-economic status, culture, education level, place of living, or lifestyle.
- Children and young people can experience mental illnesses and often exhibit early signs that can be acted on. In fact, 50% of adult mental health conditions begin prior to the age of 14 (AJGP, 2018) and mental health disorders rank as 3 of the 5 leading disease burdens for children aged 5 to 14 (AIHW,2020);
- Even people with the most outwardly charming lives, seemingly perfect circumstances, or a happy disposition can be experiencing a mental health problem.
Myth 5: Only mental health professionals have a role to play
This myth assumes that mental illness and mental health problems are so complex and challenging that care should be left only to the professionals. While it is true that professional, clinical supports can be vital for a person’s diagnosis, treatment and ongoing support, often the importance of other community supports are overlooked.
Why is this unhelpful?
- It reduces pathways to adequate care and support.
- It assumes all mental health problems can be ‘solved’ with medical or psychological treatments alone.
- It does nothing to improve our individual and community capacity to identify and respond to mental health problems.
- It puts the onus on the person experiencing mental health problems to seek professional help for themselves, and then keep their mental health problems to themselves.
FACT: Everyone has a role to play in understanding mental health, and everyone can offer support to someone experiencing mental health problems.
- Wrap-around supports in-community are also important.
- Individuals and communities have a role to play through informal community care (looking out for one and other and offering genuine support).
- Participation in cultural groups, extra curricular activities, volunteering and other social activities can increase connection and belonging as a protective factor for mental health.
- Education and training can help anyone to recognise and respond to signs of developing, worsening or crisis mental health problems.
- Workplaces, schools and communities have particular role to play in keeping people safe and providing support.
Myth 6: Talking about mental health problems makes them worse
This myth is largely due to fear and misplaced concern for the person. Many people worry that by talking about mental illness, crises or suicide they might put ideas into a person’s head. They might worry about using the wrong words or offending someone. They may also avoid talking about mental health problems because they feel it will make themselves and others uncomfortable.
Why is this unhelpful?
- It can inadvertently perpetuate stigma about mental health that prevents people from getting help.
- It can stop people from reaching out to someone they think might be at risk.
- It can make people with mental health problems, mental illness, crises or suicidal thoughts and behaviours, feel they have to keep it secret or stay quiet.
- It stops our communities moving forward on matters of mental health for all.
FACT: Talking positive and safely about issues regarding mental health and suicide helps people rather than harms them. We need to learn how to talk about these matters safely, respectfully and accurately.
Things to consider:
- Using the right language to talk about mental health matters and you can easily educate yourself on the do’s and don’ts.
- Positive conversations about mental health are important to improving mental health literacy.
- Conversations that normalise mental health problems, life challenges and help-seeking reduce stigma and remove barriers for support.
- Positive connection and belonging can have a powerful impact on someone who has mental health problems, is suicidal or is experiencing troubled times.
- Learning to talk about suicide and mental health safely will reduce your fear about saying the wrong things.
Myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health are still common. They can create significant challenges for people experiencing mental health problems, while increasing stigma, and preventing accurate and supportive conversations. We all have a role to play in educating ourselves.
These six common myths about mental health are easily busted with facts. Armed with simple information and a positive attitude towards mental health, we can be part of the change towards a more supportive community.
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