PSA: People with mental illnesses are more likely to be *victims* of violence.
One of the biggest cultural shifts in recent history is people’s willingness to discuss mental health. Aided in part by social media, more and more people are willing to open up about their own struggles, to discuss and prioritize self-care, and to form supportive communities around mental illness.
But that doesn’t mean all misconceptions about mental illness have disappeared. Some stubborn mental health myths have persisted for centuries, making them difficult to erase with Instagram posts alone.
HealthiNation asked psychologists and other mental health experts about the biggest myths about mental illness, and here’s what they had to say.
MYTH: A mental illness diagnosis is forever.
In many cases, mental illness can come and go. Someone may experience episodes of depression interspersed throughout their life. Diagnoses may also shift: You may battle generalized anxiety for years and then develop a subtype of anxiety, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. And of course, a diagnosis could go away altogether.
“Complete recovery from mental illness is possible,” says Shanna Brewton-Tiayon, PhD, social psychologist and national instructor for the National Council for Behavioral Health. “When thinking of physical illness, we think of recovery as the disappearance of symptoms, [but] recovery for mental illness may mean that the person learns to manage those symptoms in ways that don’t have a detrimental impact on their life.”
MYTH: Mental illness makes you violent or dangerous.
Many catastrophic events in the United States (namely, mass shootings) are blamed on mental illnesses. This knee-jerk reaction to label a violent person as having a mental illness is likely just a way for people to make sense of a tragic event, since it’s hard to imagine why any human would carry out such horrific acts.
The truth is, the vast majority of people with a mental illness have *no* desire to hurt others. If they hurt anyone, it’s often themselves, with negative self-talk and possibly self-harm.
“The unfortunate truth is people with mental health disorders are more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators,” says Stephen Loyd, MD, internist and medical director of Journey Pure, an addiction and mental health care company headquartered in Nashville, TN. In particular, women with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence.
MYTH: Mental illness only happens to the “weak.”
Sorry, but willpower is unlikely to prevent or cure a mental illness. These disorders are often triggered by trauma—such as abuse or a triggering event—and they do not reflect your strength of character.
“This myth is dangerous because no one likes to admit that they are weak, and thus they avoid seeking the help that they need,” says Dr. Mitchell Hicks, ABPP, faculty member for Walden University’s PhD in Clinical Psychology program. “The person suffers needlessly at best, but symptoms could keep getting worse.”
MYTH: Talking about suicide encourages suicide attempts.
Many fear that talking about suicide will plant the idea in someone’s head, and thus it feels dangerous to even mention the word.
“Talking about it helps prevent it,” says Ana Sokolovic, licensed psychotherapist and life coach at Parenting Pod. “It helps assess the suicidal risk and get adequate help. It demystifies the topic and allows a person to express how they feel.”
Of course, you might avoid talking about it because you are uncomfortable or don’t know what to say. There are many resources online for how to talk to a loved one about suicide ideation, but some tips include listening without passing judgment, allowing them to express themselves openly, and not promising secrecy.
MYTH: Successful people don’t have mental illnesses.
Someone with a mental illness might mistakenly believe their situation would get better if they could just get a better job, or just find a significant other who makes them happy, or just be able to afford cool trips like their social media friends.
Remember, mental illness is often caused by past trauma. Even if you “have it all,” you can still suffer from past trauma. If you suffer from anxiety, for example, those symptoms may follow you even if you get a new job, a new partner, etc.
“It’s not unusual for very successful people to have anxiety, depression, or addictions,” says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist specializing in mental illness. “There are more and more celebrities coming out about mental illness, but a lot of people still think that you have to look mentally ill, or you aren’t really mentally ill.”
MYTH: Treatment for mental illness is linear.
“The thought is that if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, then you go to a mental health expert and they make you feel better,” says Mollie Volinsky, LCSW. “It would be nice if that were true, but that isn’t the case. Healing and recovery are not linear.”
What makes this myth so problematic is that it can make someone think their treatment is “not working,” or not working fast enough, or that they are failing at it. It might even lead people to abandon their treatment if they think it’s a waste of their time or money.
The truth is, the obstacles you face during treatment for mental illness are part of the process. “You’ll have good days, and you’ll have bad days. Therapy is more about learning how to tolerate and cope with these inherent ups and downs rather than simply ‘fixing’ them,” says Volinsky.
MYTH: Therapy is only for “crazy” people.
“There is this misconception that therapy is only for people with ‘problems,’ and if you go to therapy, something must be ‘wrong’ with you,” says Susan Youngsteadt, LCSW, therapist working in private practice in Raleigh, NC. “You do not need to have a diagnosable concern [or have] been through a major trauma to seek therapeutic support.”
The stigma of who goes to therapy and why may lead people to avoid it, even if they would truly benefit from it—and most people would. Furthermore, not getting help early on can cause problems to worsen, making recovery more difficult.
“I highly encourage therapy for anyone,” says Youngsteadt. “Everyone struggles in some aspect of their lives and we could all use [an] unbiased third party to provide perspective and alternative insight into our lives.”
Thinking of giving therapy a shot? Here are common myths about therapy you can ignore, and find out what to expect at your first therapy appointment here.
How to talk about suicide. Rockville, MD: Indian Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Accessed on March 3, 2020 at https://www.ihs.gov/suicideprevention/howtotalk/.)
Suicide prevention: if you know someone in crisis. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental health. (Accessed on March 3, 2020 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml.)
What is mental illness? Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. (Accessed on March 3, 2020 at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness.)
What is psychotherapy? Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. (Accessed on March 3, 2020 at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/psychotherapy.)
Yu R, Nevado-Holgado AJ, Molero Y, D’Onofrio BM, Larsson H, Howard LM, Fazel S. Mental disorders and intimate partner violence perpetrated by men towards women: a Swedish population-based longitudinal study. PLOS Med. 2019 Dec.