September 29, 2016

“You Must Be Crazy:” 4 Myths About Mental Illness - Kristie Nichols

Mental Illness common in US

What do you think of when you hear the words “mental illness”? I’ve asked many people this question in my life, and the most common answers I’ve gotten are “crazy,” “nuts,” and “insane.”

Most people think that mental illness refers to something “other:” lunatics and a small percentage of the population.

But, newsflash … are you ready?  That is simply not true.

Mental illness refers to any disorder that can affect your mood, thinking, behavior, or some combination of the three. On top of that, mental illness is extremely common; it’s estimated that one in four people experience mental illness in some form or another each year [1].

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, there are still so many misconceptions about what it means to live with one. So, today, I’ll break down four myths about mental illness to highlight how important it is that we talk about these issues.  I also want to highlight these myths about mental illness to ensure that we, and our loved ones, are getting help if we need it.

Myth 1: Having a mental illness means you are suffering.

Oh man. If I had a nickel for every time someone said that someone “suffers with” a mental illness, I’d have…well, a lot of nickels.

If you have a mental illness, it does not mean that you are always suffering, or walking through life a miserable person.  Don’t get me wrong; having a mental illness is no walk in the park, but it doesn’t mean you live your entire life in despair.

Like most health issues, a mental illness ebbs and flows.

Take someone with depression, for example. There might be days where it’s impossible to get out of bed. There are also many days where you can go about your day normally. Are days you are stuck in bed great? Absolutely not.  Does it mean that every day is your worst day? Absolutely not. There are some days with little to no suffering.

And the good news is there are tons of coping skills that you can use to get through the bad days, and to make the good days even better.

Myth 2: It’s impossible for me to have a mental illness.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all be immune to mental illness? Seriously, I think it would be a superpower of some kind.  Sad to say, I’ve never known that to be true.

The biggest example of this myth that comes to my mind relates directly to my work with people with eating disorders.  I often hear, “Men can’t have eating disorders.”  Hmm … then how is it that there are an estimated ten million men who will be diagnosed with an eating disorder in their lifetime in the United States? [2]

Eating disorders (and mental illnesses as a whole) do not discriminate.  Your gender, race, age, height, weight, education, eye color, shoe size, or favorite movie does not matter.  If you are a human, you can have an eating disorder. If you are human, you can have a mental illness.

Myth 3: If you can’t recover from mental illness, you aren’t working hard enough.

This myth is particularly dangerous. Mental illnesses thrive off self-criticism and blame.

On a daily basis, I hear, “If I just work harder, I can overcome this on my own.”  If only it were that easy!

When your mental illness gets worse, its voice gets louder.  The voice says that people seeking treatment are “weak” or “lazy.”

In reality, seeking treatment for an eating disorder or mental illness is one of the hardest things you can do, especially when the voice of the mental illness is saying you shouldn’t.  Do your best to be aware of this; fight as hard as you can to ignore that voice and get the help you need. For many people, treatment is the most effective way to find skills, strategies, medications, and tools that help you manage the symptoms of your mental illness.

Myth 4: When you have a mental illness, you are alone.

Mental illness tends to isolate you from others, making you feel that you, and you alone, are dealing with this and have to cope with consequences on your own.

Common thoughts include:

  • “No one wants to hear about my problems.”
  • “Just suck it up.”
  • “My friends will judge me if they find out about this.”

But here is what you need to know: mental illness is common, and chances are you know someone else who is dealing with one or something similar. By telling others, you allow yourself to have other people in your life who understand what is going on, and can be a support when you need it.

References:

[1] National Alliance on Mental Illness

[2] National Eating Disorders Association


Kristie Nichols, MA is a Clinical Assessment Specialist for Eating Recovery Center, Colorado.

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