Misconceptions about mental health are pervasive in America and can cause real harm to those suffering. Here are five common myths, debunked.
Even as attention increases on the state of the nation’s mental health, misconceptions persist, often contributing to stigma. Myths about mental health can cause real harm, affecting those who suffer, preventing progress on policy improvements, and even misleading those who wish to help those in need.
Daniel Bates, Ph.D., a licensed professional clinical counselor in Kentucky and Ohio, takes on five myths about mental health and debunks them. He is an assistant professor of counseling at Truman State University and has contributed to Psychology Today, and his recent books include Even a Superhero Needs Counseling: What Superheroes and Super-Villains Teach Us About Ourselves.
Myth 1: Deeply disturbed people have mental illnesses, not normal people.
In TV shows and movies, mental illness is often depicted as someone who’s visibly disturbed, stuck in a straitjacket, and rocking back and forth in a padded room. But in reality, many mental health conditions aren’t extreme like that, or maybe even noticeable. Many aspects of mental illness are hidden from the public view, and it’s not always obvious when someone is dealing with a mental health issue just by looking at them.
In fact, a lot of people with mental health challenges have become experts at hiding their symptoms, to avoid drawing attention and blend in. Some of them are high functioning, which means they can go about their daily lives, hold down jobs, and maintain relationships, all while silently dealing with their mental health issues. Experts in the mental health field call this masking, which refers to the practice of disguising or suppressing one’s actual thoughts and feelings in order to conform to social expectations or norms.
Although people with mental illness might not show outward signs of distress, that doesn’t mean they don’t need support and treatment. In fact, even high functioning individuals, those who outwardly have it all together, need support and help. So, the way mental illness is often portrayed in the media doesn’t capture the full picture of what it’s really like for most people.
Myth 2: There’s no coming back from a mental illness.
There’s this idea or worry floating around that once someone goes through a mental health challenge, they are forever broken or changed in a way that can never be fixed. This myth assumes that once a person struggles with mental illness, they are contaminated. In a manner of speaking, mental illness is “icky.” Many clients have reported to their therapists that after they’d been open and honest about their struggles with family and friends, people started treating them differently. People began keeping their distance and treating them with kid gloves, as if they were fragile.
It’s true that mental illness can alter a person; it’s hard not to be changed by such an experience. But these changes aren’t necessarily negative. In fact, they often turn out to be changes for the better.
Going through mental illness is, first of all, normal. Full stop; read that again. Mental illness is a feature, not a bug, of the human experience because, as some experts argue, mental illness can be adaptive. For instance, people, every day, find creative and profound ways of tapping into deep reservoirs of strength and courage in the face of their struggles. It’s like a trial by fire that pushes people to dig deep and discover their own resilience. More often than not, struggling through mental illness increases compassion and empathy for the suffering of other humans. People working through mental illness become more aware of the struggles that others go through and are motivated to offer support. They also learn resilience, which becomes a well of strength they can draw from throughout their lives.
Myth 3: Mental illness is an excuse to be narcissistic.
There’s a harmful idea out there that suggests people dealing with mental health issues are just looking for sympathy or attention. But most suffering with mental illness would never broadcast their struggles for the sake of garnering attention. In fact, many hide their struggles and bitterly battle feelings of shame, isolation, and a sense that they are broken. They envy those who wake up in the morning without a debilitating sense of lethargy, lack of motivation, or anxiety. If you think mental illness is a choice, those who struggle with mental illness would strongly disagree. If anything, given the opportunity, they would wish not to have a mental illness. But no genie in the bottle exists, and many people who battle mental illness suffer in silence, as opposed to seeking the spotlight.
To put things in perspective, mental illness can feel like a relentless uphill battle that makes day-to-day functioning near impossible, depending on the nature and severity of the disorder.
And really, this myth is built on a misunderstanding of narcissism. A classic narcissist would be the last to admit they have a problem or struggle. According to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), a true narcissist would go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of vulnerability and outwardly would present only a glossy façade of confidence, superiority, and perfection.
So, it’s not about wanting attention; it’s about trying to survive. People with mental health conditions often hide their struggles, worried about being judged, discriminated against, or stigmatized. This fear of judgment can lead to isolation, making it even harder for them to reach out and ask for the help they desperately need. When a person does admit to struggling with mental illness, it’s critical that we understand that making that confession is an act of bravery and demonstrates a willingness to care for themselves, knowing that there may be a social cost.
Myth 4: Treating mental illness is solely focused on reducing symptoms.
The relationship between our physical health and emotional well-being is closely interconnected through what experts call the mind-body connection. This connection underscores that mental and emotional states are deeply connected to and impactful on physical health. The reverse is also true: Physical health, or the lack thereof, also has a deep impact on mental health. For example, if you’ve ever felt like a 25-pound dumbbell was sitting on your chest when you were stressed about a work deadline, you have experienced the mind-body connection. Or, if you overindulged on junk food and for the next few hours, or even for an entire day, you felt lethargic and unmotivated, you have experienced the mind-body connection. The connection between thoughts and feelings and our physical health affects every aspect of our overall health; recent research has only scratched the surface of all the profound connections.
However, the mental health field has not always adopted a holistic point of view and historically has been guilty of limiting treatment to the reduction of symptoms. Boiling down a person’s experience to a set of symptoms that fall within a diagnostic category, with the goal of reducing the severity of the problem, is less than ideal. At best it offers temporary relief without addressing the underlying causes, can lead to overreliance on medication, inadvertently increases stigma surrounding mental illness, and primarily assumes a reactive stance rather than one that is preventive and proactive. In essence, it neglects the holistic nature of a person’s health and well-being.
Thankfully, therapists have recognized that caring and supporting a person’s overall health must take into consideration everything that makes up a person’s identity and being, including their social functioning, emotional well-being, physical health, and even their views, perceptions, and feelings. It’s not enough to focus on only one piece of the puzzle, such as symptoms. For a competent counselor, symptoms are only one chapter of the story, one movement in a symphony, that provide a limited but important snapshot into how the client is functioning. Really, the big idea is that mental health care has to be holistic health care that goes beyond symptom reduction to acknowledge the intricate interplay between a person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. What this looks like, in a practical sense, is the promotion of preventive strategies such as purposefully spending time in nature, adjusting eating habits, getting regular exercise and engaging in physical activity, spending time with friends and loved ones, and contributing in meaningful ways to a group or community as well as practicing activities that promote mental health such as going to a counselor, journaling, and, in some cases, taking prescribed psychotropic medications.
Myth 5: Therapy is monocultural and teaches people of color to be White.
People of color may feel that therapy isn’t for them because the majority of those providing and receiving mental health care are White. According to the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association (and the Bureau of Labor Statistics), most therapists, psychologists, and social workers practicing in the United States are White. For people of color, it can be a real challenge to locate a therapist who understands their racial or ethnic background. Without representation among mental health providers, the unique cultural experiences and values of people of color often aren’t adequately understood and integrated into the process of therapy. These concerns are shared not only by clients but also by counselors and counselor educators who are actively working to make the mental health field more diverse and culturally competent.
Many therapists in various health care settings are striving to create a safe and welcoming environment for clients. In these spaces, clients can freely explore their own identities and experiences without feeling the need to edit or self-censor their unique cultural perspectives. Moreover, therapists not only recognize but value cultural differences, seeing them as sources of empowerment and resilience. This shift toward inclusivity and cultural competence is helping to bridge the gap and address the concerns potential clients may have when seeking mental health support.