Dropping the Stigma of Mental Illness


Mental illness affects us all. As a young physician, I didn’t fully appreciate how widespread illnesses like depression or schizophrenia were. Most of the mentally ill I saw were severely sick and looked nothing like the people I encountered on a day-to-day basis. But years of experience with countless patients and guests on the show have shown me that mental illness is common and affects people you’d never expect. In spite of that, mental illness still hides in the shadows, often shrouded in shame because of the stigma attached to saying you have a mental illness. In the spirit of Mental Illness Awareness Week, I want to pull the curtain back on some of the common myths and misperceptions about mental illness.

Myth: I don’t know anyone with mental illness.

I’ve heard this from many people, but chances are actually better that you know someone with mental illness than that you don’t. About one in every five people in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. Unless you have no friends, family, or acquaintances, chances are good you know someone with mental illness.

Myth: The mentally ill are just mentally weak.

I’ve heard variations on this theme over and over from many people who often aren’t up to date with the latest knowledge on what causes mental illness. It’s true that as a little as a few decades ago physicians used to attribute illnesses like anxiety or bipolar disorder to personality defects of the people suffering from that illness. They blamed the victim for the disease. But the explosion of new data on the brain has thrown those ideas into the past.

Well supported research is showing that mental illness like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and a host of others are illnesses of the brain in the same way that breast cancer, pneumonia, or psoriasis are diseases of other parts of the body. Because these diseases change the connections and chemistry within the brain, they also cause changes in the personality and behavior of the people who have them. That can make it tempting to want to fault those with mental illness for being lazy or not working hard enough to change their thinking. But the illness has profoundly changed their mind in a way that requires professional help to change.

Myth: People with mental illness are all unstable.

The media often portrays those with mental illnesses as caricatures of what we actually see in real life. On TV shows, people with mental illness seem frightening, out of control, and completely detached from reality. Schizophrenia tends show up out of proportion to the other illnesses, like depression, that affect people. While people with severe disease can appear out of control, most of those living with a mental illness are normal appearing individuals, especially those who are being effectively treated. In fact, those who have their illness under control can live close to normal lives and may be surrounded by people who have no idea that they have a mental illness. The key thing to remember is that those with mental illness are just like you, but have a brain that’s not viewing and interpreting the world accurately. They behave and act in ways that make sense based on their distorted view of the world, but don’t make sense to those of us with more normal brains.

Myth: People with mental illness should just snap out of it.

If you don’t live with mental illness, it can be easy to think that people with depression should just think positively, that people with anxiety should just stop worrying, or that people who are manic should just calm down. We often forget that the control we have over our emotions and the way we understand the world is not the same for the people we know and meet. Most of the time, our subtle differences in perception don’t make a big difference. But those with mental illness see the world in a completely different way. Those with anxiety can’t worry less, for example, because they really do understand the world to be more threatening than you no matter how much you might tell them otherwise. This is why a one-two punch of medication and therapy is so helpful: the medications help to normalize the thinking just enough for therapy to work.

Myth: There’s no treatment for mental illness.

Many of the people that I’ve talked to who struggle with mental illness talk about how long it took them to realize that help was available. Once they found out something was wrong, they often didn’t think they could do anything about it and didn’t know where to find help. Fortunately, advances in both psychotherapy and medications have revolutionized the treatment of mental illness over the last several decades. Most mental illness is now treatable with the best results often coming through a mix of therapy sessions and medications. This combination helps reorder a person’s disrupted and distorted thinking and allows them to develop new ways to deal with their chronic illness. Getting treatment early is essential. It helps people stay on track before their life is completely derailed by their illness and can reduce some of the brain damage we’ve found these diseases can eventually cause.

Myth: There’s nothing I can do to help my loved one with mental illness.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of an illness that can so profoundly change the personality and behavior of your loved ones. It’s important to remember not to try and help your loved one with mental illness by yourself. These illnesses require professional help, often in the form of both therapy and medications. The best thing you can do is to find a professional to get help and guidance. Lean on your support network and get involved with support groups for those with loved ones who have mental illness.