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5 Myths About Mental Illness — and What You Really Need to Know

By Javier Lopez-De-Arco, MD

Despite increased focus on the importance of mental health, many myths still exist about what mental illness is and what it looks like.

Some of the biggest misconceptions about mental health are:

1. MYTH: You’re either mentally ill or mentally healthy.

TRUTH: Just like any illness, a mental disorder can affect you in different degrees of severity.

2. MYTH: Mental illness is a sign of weakness.

TRUTH: Whether an illness is physical or mental, it is not a sign of weakness, but rather the result of genes, physical illness, injury, brain chemistry, family history and/or life experiences.

3. MYTH: You can’t prevent mental health problems.

TRUTH: Not all mental health problems are preventable, but early recognition and treatment can help diminish symptoms significantly.

4. MYTH: People with mental illness are violent.

TRUTH: Most people with mental health problems are nonviolent. Only 3% to 5% of violent acts are attributed to mental health disorders.

5. MYTH: Mental health problems last forever.

TRUTH: Although not all mental health conditions are curable, most are treatable with an array of approaches, and many people with mental health conditions recover completely.

Many myths surround mental health.
photo credit: CDC

What is a Mental Health Disorder?

Now that we know some of what isn’t true about mental health, let’s talk about what is. A mental health disorder is a behavioral or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning. This can be persistent, relapsing and remitting, or occur as a single episode.

Mental disorders are common. In the U.S., 46 percent of the population qualifies for a mental illness at some point. The most common disorders seen in the U.S. are anxiety disorder (28.8 percent), impulse-control disorder (24.8 percent), mood disorder (20.8%) and substance use disorder (14.6%). While rates of psychological disorders are often the same for women and men, women tend to have a higher rate of depression, with 73 million women affected by major depression each year, and suicide ranked 7th as the cause of death for women aged 20 – 59.

Almost everyone has anxiety, impulsiveness or mood swings or may overindulge in alcohol occasionally. The difference lies in the degree these feelings interrupt a person’s life. To be classified as a mental disorder, the psychological syndrome or pattern is associated with distress, disability, increasing risk of death or causing a significant loss of autonomy.

Women are at greater risk of depression.
photo credit: National Institute of Mental Health

What are Signs of a Mental Disorder?

The signs of mental disorder can vary, but because mental illness affects thoughts, feelings, behaviors and general interactions with the world, it can cause life to spiral out of control.

Some symptoms to look for include:

  • A drastic change to the sense of self; a fundamental change in a person’s identity.
  • Psychosomatic troubles, which are physical symptoms caused by mental conflict and stress, such as difficulty concentrating and learning. A person may feel disoriented, have mental fogginess, increased anger and irritability.
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
  • Avoiding activities that used to bring joy. A person may shut down and withdraw from society and life in general, and focus on negative feelings.
  • Suicidal feelings and thoughts can occur when a person has difficulty coping with problems in a healthy way and can’t see a healthy resolution. (Comments about not going on with life or that the world would be better off without them or giving away favorite personal belongings are red flags that help is needed.)
  • Substance abuse
The severity of anxiety, impulsiveness or mood swings should be considered when addressing a mental illness.
photo credit: Harvard University

When to Get Help

If you or someone you know is experiencing the symptoms above, or the ones listed below, it is important to get help.

  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships.
  • Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head.
  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, worried or scared.
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless.
  • Having low or no energy.
  • Having unexplained aches and pains.
  • Yelling or fighting with family and friends.
  • Hearing voices or believing things that are not true.
  • Thinking of harming yourself or others.
  • Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your children or getting to work or school.

How to Help a Friend or Family Member

Expressing your concern to a friend or family member who seems to be having a difficult time can be tricky and, because of that, we often don’t say anything. But it is important to make this connection, so instead of avoiding the awkwardness, try leading with these tips and make sure to actively listen to your friend’s or family member’s response.

  • Consider starting with “I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you’re experiencing? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?”
  • Communicate in a straightforward manner and speak at a level appropriate to the person’s age and developmental level.
  • Discuss the topic when and where the person feels safe and comfortable. Ask them who or what has helped you deal with similar issues in the past? Ask how you can help them find help?
  • In addition to this conversation, continue including your friend or family member in your plans so they don’t feel isolated.
  • Educate other people so they understand the truth about mental health problems and do not discriminate. Most importantly, treat people with mental health problems with compassion and empathy.
There are treatments for mental health.
photo credit: AARP

Mental Health Resources

If you or someone you know has a mental health problem, get immediate help by talking with your primary care physician. If the situation is potentially life-threatening, get emergency assistance by calling 9-1-1. For more help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or chat online at

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline via (877) 726-4727, and has resources available Monday – Friday, 8 am – 8 pm EST.

Please take care of yourself and others!

Article reprinted with permission by Orlando Health.

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