By Michelle Wagner
Public Health Educator
With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s a good time to consider what we mean when we talk about mental health – and address some common myths about mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental health includes our “emotional, psychological and social well-being.” The state of our mental health affects how we think, feel, and act. It helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices.
Throughout our lives, we will inevitably have periods of both good and poor mental health, or we may experience mental health disorders that affect our mood as well as how we think and behave.
When we experience good mental health, we tend to feel content and optimistic. We’re confident and feel good about ourselves. We feel connected to others, set goals and feel equipped to handle stress and adversity.
When our mental health is poor, however, life can feel more like a struggle. We can feel stressed, agitated and experience feelings of sadness, anxiety and exhaustion. When those feelings persist, or are accompanied by other symptoms, we may be experiencing a mental health disorder.
Mental illness is common and it is treatable. Much like heart disease or diabetes, mental illness is a medical problem and like other medical illnesses, early intervention can make a crucial difference in preventing what could turn into a serious illness.
Symptoms that could signal a mental health disorder include changes in sleep, appetite or mood; extreme worry or fear; social withdrawal or loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities; problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech; apathy; detached reality; and unusual behavior.
Unfortunately, there are a number of myths when it comes to mental health. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has addressed some of the more prevalent myths, offering facts to counter the myths. Below are a few:
Myth: Mental health issues can’t affect me.
Fact: Mental health issues can affect anyone.
One in 5 American adults experienced a mental health condition in a given year and one in 6 young people have experienced a major depressive episode.
One in 20 Americans have lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States.
Myth: People with mental health conditions are violent.
Fact: People with severe mental illnesses are actually more likely to be victims of violent crime and over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.
Most people with mental health conditions are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.
Only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.
Myth: Children don’t experience mental health issues.
Fact: Even very young children may show early warning signs of mental health concerns. These mental health conditions are often clinically diagnosable and can be a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors.
Half of all mental health disorders show first signs before a person turns 14 years old, and three-quarters of mental health disorders begin before age 24.
Only half of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health conditions receive the treatment they need.
Myth: Mental health issues are a result of personality weaknesses or character flaws and people can “snap out of it” if they try.
Fact: Mental health conditions have nothing to do with weaknesses or flaws. Many people need help to get better and many factors contribute to mental health conditions, including:
Biological factors, such as genes, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry
Life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse
Family history of mental health conditions
Myth: I can’t do anything for a person with mental illness.
Fact: Friends and family can be important influences in getting someone the help and treatment they need. In 2020, only 20 percent of adults received any mental health treatment in the past year, which included 10 percent who received counseling or therapy from a professional. You can help someone get the treatment and services they need by:
Reaching out and letting them know you there for them
Helping them access mental health services
Help them learn self-care and coping techniques
Learning and sharing facts about mental health
Refusing to define them by their diagnosis or using labels like “crazy.”