mental health myths and facts

Post Updated September 2021

Millions of Americans suffer from mental health conditions that can affect their thoughts, feelings, mood, and/or behavior. These conditions may affect a person occasionally. They also may be frequent or chronic.

Many harmful myths surround the subject of mental illness. It’s important to know the truth behind these myths — and have empathy for those coping with mental illness.

“It’s important to educate the public about what’s factual versus what’s not,” says Jennifer Beckjord, PsyD, senior director, Clinical Services, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital. “That tends to increase awareness about mental health and related concerns which, hopefully, will lead to earlier recognition, intervention, and prevention efforts.”

How Common Are Mental Health Conditions?

Myth: Cases of mental health problems are rare.

Fact: Mental health conditions are common.

Millions of Americans either suffer from mental illness themselves or know someone who does.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • 20.6% of adults in the United States (51.5 million) experienced mental illness in 2019.
  • 5.2% of U.S. adults (13.1 million) experienced serious mental illness in 2019.
  • 7.8% of U.S. adults (19.4 million) experience an episode of major depression each year.
  • 19.1% of U.S. adults (about 48 million) suffer from anxiety disorders in a given year.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. It is the second leading cause of death in Americans between the ages of 10 and 34.

Dr. Beckjord says some people may not recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses. Because of that, they may not realize how common they are.

“I think mental health illnesses have become less stigmatized over time, and I think the COVID-19 pandemic helped to highlight and normalize mental health concerns because so many people experienced anxiety, depression, and other behavioral health concerns,” Dr. Beckjord says. “Statistics certainly show that it is much more common than one might know or think.”

Children and Mental Health

Myth: Children don’t experience mental illness.

Fact: Mental health conditions affect kids, too.

According to NAMI, 1 in 6 U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 experience a mental health disorder each year. That represents 7.7 million children.

“Mental health problems often begin in childhood,” Dr. Beckjord says. “I think for kids, mental health-related issues can come out in different ways. It may look different than it would for an adult.”

Behavioral changes to be aware of in children include:

  • A drop in school grades.
  • Self-isolation.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Inability to sleep.
  • Acting out, or aggressive behaviors.

Mental Illness and Violence

Myth: People with mental health disorders are more prone to violent behavior than others.

Fact: This isn’t true. In fact, it’s more likely for people living with mental illness to be the victims of violent crime.

Linking mental illness to violence is a dangerous, untrue stereotype. Mental illness can be linked to 4% of violent acts in the U.S., according to a 2019 report from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. Other factors — such as a history of violence or substance use — are greater indicators of violence.

People who suffer from mental illness are more much likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

Dr. Beckjord says high profile cases of violence committed by people with mental health conditions create a false narrative.

“People assume individuals with mental health issues are dangerous or should be avoided,” she says. “It becomes stigmatizing and can lead to unfortunate, hurtful assumptions.”

What Causes Mental Health Disorders?

Myth: Personal weakness causes mental health disorders.

Fact: There is no one cause for mental health disorders.

Many factors can cause a person to experience a mental health disorder. Triggers for mental illness can include:

  • Stress.
  • Life factors/environment (losing a loved one, losing a job, financial troubles).
  • Childhood trauma or history of abuse.
  • Other medical conditions.
  • Biological factors (genetics or brain chemical imbalances).
  • Unhealthy habits (poor nutrition or sleep).
  • Alcohol or drug use.
  • Loneliness and isolation.

Mental Health and Everyday Life

Myth: People with mental health disorders can’t hold a job or function well in normal life.

Fact: This is not true. In fact, you come across people managing a mental health concern all the time in everyday life, without ever realizing it.

Certain mental health disorders — especially severe ones — can affect your ability to relate to others or perform daily activities. However, most people with mental health conditions can function the same as those without. They can hold jobs, go to school, have relationships, and more.

The idea that people with mental illness can’t function normally is a dangerous and untrue stigma. Many people living with a mental health issue don’t talk about it because of the stigma attached.

“Having a mental health problem certainly doesn’t preclude anyone from living the same quality of life as anybody else,” Dr. Beckjord says. “It does not preclude them from being productive at work, for example, or being able to maintain or hold down their job.

“The most important thing is that someone’s mental health concern or illness is being addressed. That signs or symptoms are being recognized early on, and that they’re getting the support, help, and treatment necessary.”

Mental Health Treatment

Myth: Just think positive, and it’ll go away.

Fact: Ignoring problems can make them worse.

Mental illnesses are complex issues which can cause cognitive distortions. For example, depression can affect a person’s emotions and mood. Brushing aside someone’s feelings and responses to a mental illness can have serious negative effects.

“Mental illnesses are serious and should not be taken lightly,” Dr. Beckjord says. “They can’t simply be chalked up as something you can think positively about and make it go away.”

Millions of Americans suffer from major depression — a period of two weeks or longer with a depressed mood and lack of interest or pleasure in daily activities. Major depression can cause a severe impact on everyday life, especially if left untreated.

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, about 35% of U.S. adults and about 60% of U.S. adolescents with major depression don’t get treatment.

Myth: You should wait until it gets bad to seek treatment.

Fact: Seek immediate treatment if a mental health issue is negatively impacting your ability to function or enjoy everyday life.

Mental illness doesn’t just go away on its own. The longer you wait, the harder it can be to treat.

According to NAMI, 44.8% of U.S. adults with mental health conditions received treatment in 2019. Don’t wait until a condition becomes severe to get treatment. Managing your mental health is important no matter what your condition is.

“Recognizing and being aware of signs and symptoms as early on as possible in the process is key,” Dr. Beckjord says. “Especially if the mental health concerns are getting in the way of your daily functioning, for example, that’s really a flag to get professional help and support. If you ignore it and let it continue, it will likely only get worse.”

There are many different treatment options for mental health, from medicines and counseling to therapy. Sometimes, just talking to a loved one can help. Other times, you may need to speak to a professional. Your primary care doctor can refer you to a mental health care professional, or you can reach out on your own.

If you live in Allegheny County and need immediate mental health care, call resolve Crisis Services at 1-888-796-8226.

If you are thinking of suicide or self-harm, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

“The earlier you get it treated and addressed, the better,” Dr. Beckjord says.

Helping Others With Mental Health Conditions

Myth: I’m not a professional, so I can’t help someone who’s struggling.

Fact: There are many ways you can help someone who is coping with mental health issues.

Mental health disorders can be isolating. It can be hard to think optimistically about yourself when dealing with a mental health issue. Many people suffering from depression, anxiety, or another condition do not seek treatment.

If you see someone struggling, ask them if they need to talk. Sometimes, just being a friendly ear can help.

If a person doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, encourage them to talk with a licensed therapist or someone else they trust.

“It’s important that people recognize and remind themselves that there absolutely are things that one can do to help their loved ones,” Dr. Beckjord says. “Because of stigma and other factors, it can be common for people to hesitate to reach out to others for support or help. But that certainly doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help.”

If you notice any changes in behavior or concerning signs in a loved one, encourage them to seek help. Let them know they’re not alone and you’re there for them. And treat them with respect.

For more information about mental health services at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, call 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.

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