“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.”Glenn Close
Towards the end of May this year, I volunteered to run an online workshop with students from a private school in Mississauga. So there we were, on zoom, about 50 to 60 girls from grades 5 to 12, and teachers, sitting in rapt attention as we discussed mental health, myths, and what we can do about it.
While I was excited at the opportunity to converse with school students about mental health, never had I expected to be able to put together content for such a diverse age group. Post presentation, it was more clearer to me than ever, that I do not need to water down any content for my younger audiences or make things more palatable. They were far more receptive to discussing mental health and brought forth insights with a passion that I definitely lacked at their age. So while the list of mental health/illness myths is in-exhaustive, I will share the ones I discussed with them, but before that, I will discuss the difference between Mental Illness and Mental Health. For the rest of the article, I may use the terms interchangeably.
Mental Health or Mental Illness?
When you think about mental health or mental illness, think about it in terms of physical health. Just like physical health, we all have mental health. This would mean that we have emotions, thoughts, and feelings that help us navigate this world. We all will experience mental health difficulties occasionally. It isn’t a mental illness until it affects us for a long duration and with such a high intensity that it affects our daily functioning. So when you are addressing your mental health-think about it as prevention, and building your resiliency, while with mental illness, you are figuring out skills to heal and get to a place where you can function well. Another easy way to remember the difference is Mental Health = Prevention, Mental Illness = Cure. (This is a very simple way to remember the terms and does not encompass their meanings in their entirety. I would also say that you can be mentally healthy and ill at the same time, but that discussion is for another day when I will discuss dialectics and possibly write a piece on dichotomy versus spectrum.) See below some myths I discussed in the workshop.
Myth 1: Mental illness affects very few people
1 out of 5 Canadians experiences mental illness at some point in any given year. Mental illness is also the leading cause of disability in Canada. My idea behind starting with this number was not to alarm you, but rather emphasize how common and normal this is. It affects us irrespective of factors like age, gender, income, geography, location, race, and culture. Even when we do not experience mental illness, it is likely that someone we know is experiencing mental illness or temporary emotional difficulties. We also rarely pay attention to how physical and mental illnesses are interlinked. People with long term physical illness are more likely to experience mental illness. Alternatively, people with mental illnesses are at a higher risk of developing physical health conditions. So next time you joke about mental illness, think about whether you are discouraging a loved one from sharing their struggles and seeking support.
(*when I say disability, I mean anything that makes it harder for you to live your life to the best of your potential.)
Myth 2: Mental illness is caused by a personal weakness
This, to me, is the most damaging myth that is out there. Mental illness is definitely not a sign of personal weakness or poor choices. What seems to us, as poor decisions or strange behaviors is often rooted in illness. There are a lot of other factors that are not in our control. Like the nutrition we receive, the genetic makeup, the family we live with it, or the financial situation we find ourselves in. All of this may protect against or contribute to mental illnesses. Sometimes even individuals with mental health/illness rather have others believe that they are choosing to make poor decisions or are indifferent than admit that they are struggling because it makes them vulnerable to stigma. It also doesn’t help that the media isn’t representing mental illness properly. I find that the media depictions are often polarized with either glamorizing mental illness and the recovery journey or painting a very dreadful picture with little hope for a positive outcome. The best way to perceive mental health or illness is by thinking of it as a health issue, which is what it is.
Myth 3: Mental illness can’t be treated and you will be ill for life
Research shows that anywhere from 25% to 65% of people with serious mental illness make a full clinical recovery. Notice that we are only talking about serious mental illness. People can and do recover from mental illness provided they receive the right kind of treatment that may include one or more of pharmaceuticals, psychotherapy, peer support, group therapy, psycho-educational workshops, etc. Most research supports a combination of medication and psychotherapy. It is also important to learn the difference between different professionals such as Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Guidance Counsellors, Physicians, Social Workers, etc. and their scope of practice. At the end of the day, I think the real focus should be on ‘how we can recover’ and not ‘if we can’.
Myth 4: Mental illnesses aren’t real illnesses
Every time I hear someone tell me that Mental illnesses aren’t real, I boil with rage. It is simply ridiculous that we are in the 20th Century and do not believe it is real. Mental illnesses aren’t your regular ups and downs. Mental Illnesses are far more intense and last way longer. A lot of mental illnesses are diagnosed only after they have persisted for 6 months or more. We have tonnes of evidence and research proving that it affects us even economically! It is estimated that mental illness accounts for $51 billion worth of economic burden each year and in any given week, 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that mental illness is subjective, and it is not as visible and obvious as physical disabilities are. This along with media representation, and lack of awareness makes it harder for people to comprehend what mental health/mental illness is unless they have experienced it themselves.
Myth 5: People with mental illnesses are violent
People with mental illnesses are no more violent than people without mental illnesses and that has been statistically proven. People with mental illnesses are also more likely to be victims of violence than be violent. Note that social exclusion from the community is linked to violence and people with mental illnesses are often excluded socially. By no means am I justifying violence by someone who is mentally ill, but I definitely think we need affordable access to mental health treatment.
Myth 6: Children do not have mental health problems
Here are some statistics worth noting.
●70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescent ●Young children aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness
●34% of high-school students show symptoms of psychological distress
●14% of high-school students indicate a serious level of psychological distress
Again, these statistics are not meant to scare you, but to talk about how commonplace this is. So if you are struggling, that is okay, and if you think someone is struggling, then just be kind to them and find ways to support them. We have evidenced-based interventions, we have medications, and we also have access to far more information about mental health than we did before. I definitely believe that mental health literacy programs should be a part of the school curriculum.
Myth 7: People who experience mental illnesses cannot work
Well, one of the reasons why people do not know how common mental illnesses are, is because a lot of us can function, hold down steady jobs, and act according to the norm despite struggling with illnesses. Many others learn to mask their illness from others. Mental illness also does not look like it does in the movies. It can look like loss of interest in what were once fun activities, changes in appetite, sleeping too much or too little, being irritated often, avoiding social connections, and so on. It is also easy to function well when you have tonnes of protective factors like family support, education, community support, access to healthcare, financial stability, and so on. Work environments that have additional health insurance benefits, wellness programs, mental health sick leaves, and other initiatives are also beneficial.
Please note that the purpose of this article is to simply share information and not replace therapy or other health interventions. If you are experiencing significant distress and it is an emergency, call 911. For community resources click here.
To book a free 30 minute consultation with me, click here.
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