More than a frame of mind: Misconceptions about mental illness

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When I discussed misconceptions about drugs and addiction awhile back I brought up mental illness — which can be a factor in drug use. Recent comments I’ve seen and heard made me start thinking of misconceptions people seem to have about mental illness as well. Misconceptions like…

…it’s all in your head

“Why do you do this to yourself?” “Snap out of it.” “You need to cheer up.” These are common refrains I hear people say to those suffering from mental illness.

While it’s true that mental illness primarily involves the brain, it’s not all in someone’s head.

Mental illness is caused by a variety of factors. Hereditary factors can play a large part in mental illness, running in families and leaving certain people pre-disposed to developing a mental illness. Biological factors — such as brain chemistry, abnormal brain function, and hormones — can also contribute to mental illness. Environmental factors, such as psychological traumas and stress, also have a role.

Where mental illness is present, many of these factors exist intertwined — but the most important thing to remember is that it’s not something that can simply be willed away and it’s not a character flaw.

…all you need is love

Some seem to believe that love, attention, and a helping hand will “fix” someone with a mental illness. Others believe that a person simply needs to learn to love themselves in order to be fixed. Often these people will get disgruntled when their efforts fail to fix the problem — sometimes even complaining to the mentally ill person about the lack of improvement.

Love is certainly helpful to people with mental illness, but it’s not a solution. And people should never negatively disparage a mentally ill person, especially not one dealing with depression or suicidal tendencies. Negative criticism from those that are supposed to care about them most can undo the improvements a mentally ill person has made or make them feel even worse about themselves and their situation.

Instead, people with mental illness should receive positive reinforcement for the progress they’ve made — and those around them should be prepared for years of patient love. But even then, they’re largely only dealing with the symptoms. In most cases, in order to really cure a mental illness professional help is necessary.

…professional help makes everything better

When a mentally ill person starts receiving professional help, whether with medications or therapy, people expect them to miraculously change over a short amount of time.

In truth, it can take years for a person’s mental illness to dissipate. Medications can help level a person out, but generally it also takes quality psychiatric care to get to the root of the mental illness and begin to fix it — a process that can take a very long time. And any new negative experiences can set back the process.

This is why it’s so important for friends and family to be patient with those with mental illness and positively reinforce them, while understanding that a lack of improvement is not a failing of anyone — least of all the mentally ill individual.

…progress is a straight, upward slope

This is perhaps the biggest misconception I see concerning mental illness. Even once a person gets help and is making visible improvements, people expect the progress to be a straight, upward slope with no pitfalls or setbacks.

Climbing out of mental illness is much like climbing a mountain: There are ups and downs, high winds, bad weather, exhaustion and a variety of other factors to deal with. As previously noted, negative experiences can stunt or set back the progress made. And while progress can certainly be rewarding for the mentally ill individual, it can also be physically and mentally exhausting — especially if they’re confronting deep-seated issues for the first time in their life.

A true helping hand

A mentally ill person is not the way they are by choice. It’s something they are constantly battling every second of every day — every moment you aren’t witnessing the symptoms of the mental illness is a victory that person has made over their illness. But the war is long and the illness is tireless. Progress can be made, but setbacks are inevitable.

When such setbacks occur or when the illness gets the best of the individual, make sure you are a bastion of patience and hope rather than negativity and disappointment. That is truly helpful.

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4 Comments

  1. Some seem to believe that love, attention, and a helping hand will “fix” someone with a mental illness. Others believe that a person simply needs to learn to love themselves in order to be fixed. Often these people will get disgruntled when their efforts fail to fix the problem — sometimes even complaining to the mentally ill person about the lack of improvement.

    You know what assumption annoys me the most? “Get out more”. Most of us know the value of company, even introverts crave it from time to time but forcing yourself to see people, perhaps going out to lunch with a group of friends and trying to enjoy yourself, usually ends up making you feel worse.

    That, for me, is the most pervasive “cure” that people who do not understand generally offer. It might work for people who are merely fed up, but not when a real bout of depression hits.

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