“The mentally ill frighten us and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance. What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.” – Glenn Close
Mental illness carries a stigma. The mentally ill carry it with them at all times, like a big, ugly, hairy mole on one’s face that people try to avoid looking at. It’s sad and it’s frustrating. Regardless of how far mental health has come with trying to eliminate such stigma, it’s still very much alive. A majority of Americans continue to remain misinformed and even fearful of the mentally ill. Just watch the news in the days following a mass shooting. You will hear the question loud and clear: Was the shooter mentally ill?
The truth is, there are an awfully lot of myths out there about mental illness that too many people still believe. It’s important to debunk these myths. By dispelling such myths, we take a powerful step toward eradicating the stigma and the public’s fears surrounding mental disorders. Following, you will find 12 common myths about mental illness, as well as the facts, the reality, of mental health in the United States.
Myth #1: I don’t know anybody with a mental illness. Mental health problems don’t affect me.
Fact: Mental health problems are actually very common, and it’s very likely that if they don’t affect you now, they will at some point during your lifetime.
- According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (43.7 million, or 18.6%) experience mental illness in a given year.
- Approximately 1 in 25 adults (13.6 million, or 4.1%) experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes within or limits one or more major life activities.
- Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13 to 18 (21.4%) experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8 to 15, the estimate is 13%.
Myth #2: Mental disorders are not real illnesses like cancer and heart disease. People with mental illness are “crazy” and could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to.
Fact: Mental disorders are legitimate medical illnesses, just like cancer and heart disease. Research has shown time and time again that there are genetic and biological causes for mental illness.
Myth #3: People with mental illness are “weak” and “lazy.”
Fact: Mental illness has nothing to do with being lazy or weak. Mental illness is the result of changes in brain chemistry or brain function.
Myth #4: Mental illness isn’t that big a deal.
Fact: Here are some statistics that suggest otherwise:
- According to NAMI, serious mental illness costs the U.S. $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
- Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions. And adults in the U.S. living with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions.
- Over one-third (37%) of students with a mental health condition aged 14 to 21 and older who are served by special education end up dropping out of school – the largest dropout rate of any disability group.
Myth #5: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
Fact: Only 3 to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are actually 10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the general population (MentalHealth.gov).
Myth #6: Mental illness is just an excuse that people who commit crimes use in order to stay out of jail.
Fact: Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health condition (NAMI).
Myth #7: Kids who become involved with the juvenile justice system are “bad” kids and have problems because of “bad parenting.”
Fact: First off, kids who become involved with the juvenile justice system aren’t necessarily “bad” kids; they are kids who have most likely made some very poor choices. According to NAMI, 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition and at least 20% suffer from serious mental illness. Many factors can contribute to mental health problems (MentalHealth.gov), including:
- biological factors, such as genes, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry
- life experiences, such as trauma or history of abuse
- family history of mental health problems
Myth #8: But kids can’t get mental illness. They can’t get things like depression and anxiety disorders.
Fact: Kids can and do develop mental illness, depression and anxiety disorders included. In fact, this can happen to anyone at any age. Half of chronic mental illness begins by age 14. Unfortunately, just over half (50.6%) of kids aged 8 to 15 are reported to receive mental health services.
Myth #9: Depression is a normal part of the aging process.
Fact: It is not normal for older adults to be depressed.
Myth #10: Addiction is a lifestyle choice and shows lack of willpower. People with substance abuse problems are “bad” people.
Fact: Addiction is a disease that generally results from changes in brain chemistry. Few, if any, choose to become addicted to substances. Addiction has nothing to do with being a “bad” person. Among the 20.7 million adults in the U.S. who experience a substance use disorder, 40.7% (8.4 million) had a co-occurring mental illness.
Myth #11: People with mental health needs, even those who are managing their mental illness, cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.
Fact: People with mental health problems are just as productive as other employees. Employers who hire people with mental health problems report that their workers have good attendance and punctuality, motivation, good work, and job tenure to be on par or greater than other employees.
Myth #12: Suicide will never affect me.
Fact: These sad statistics unfortunately suggest otherwise:
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
- It is the 3rd leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.
- It is the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24.
- More than 90% of kids who die by suicide had a mental health condition.
- The highest suicide rates in the U.S. are found in white men over age 85.
“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” – Bill Clinton
“Mental Disorders in America” (The Kim Foundation)
“Mental Health By the Numbers” (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
“Mental Health Myths and Facts” (MentalHealth.gov)
“Myths Vs. Facts on Walk in Our Shoes” (Walk in Our Shoes)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
“Misconceptions About Mental Illness – Pervasive and Damaging” NARSAD Research Newsletter, Volume 13, Issue 4, Winter 2001/2002, p. 28