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Mental Illness Stigma: Myth vs. Fact (Article 1 in Stigma series)

The hardest part of living with a mental illness is the stigma that is in the world today. This unfortunate attitude makes living with these health issues so much worse than it needs to be. It creates feelings of shame, inferiority, failure and brokenness for the sufferers; not to mention discrimination and fear of treatments that can actually help us. The saddest part is that this stigma is based, mostly, on things that are complete myths with absolutely no truthful foundation. In order to make any progress in the fight against stigma toward mental illness, it is absolutely vital that the myths surrounding it be extinguished.

Myth 1: Illnesses such as Social Anxiety Disorder are Learned Behaviors   

Fact: No book, classroom, teacher, parent, home environment, wrong crowd, or fly-by-night theory can ‘teach’ someone how to have a mental health disorder. People believe that it can be overcome with strong enough will power, determination, motivation; or by swatting it away like a pesky mosquito. Mental illness is a biological problem. It cannot controlled at will, or be learned anymore than someone learns to grow to a chosen height.

Myth 2: Mental Illness is Not a Physical Condition

Fact: Here is what I call the Mosquito Theory. It seems people think it’s just a random thought buzzing around in thin air around a person. This could not be further from the truth. Any mental illness comes with a list of physical symptoms. Depression, for example, can be excruciatingly painful; with headaches, pains, cramps, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating. Not only that, but often men have other symptoms that women, in general, do not experience as much; such as anger and irritability.

More and more, science is proving that mental illness is indeed a physical disease. As a matter of fact scientists have recently developed a blood test to detect Depression in teens. It’s not a fined tuned perfect answer as of yet, but in a Toronto Star article by staff reporter, Emily Jackson published April 17th, 2012; she quotes Dr. Allison Owen-Anderson, a psychologist at the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who said “Blood tests could also make depression less stigmatizing to clients by treating it more like a medical diagnosis…This could encourage more people to seek treatment.” It is caused by chemical and hormone imbalances, genetic markers, and environmental factors.

Myth 3: Depression is Simply “Sad Thoughts” or a “Pity Party”

Fact: No matter how helpful treatments may be at the present time; the fact remains, the sufferer still has a disorder. Until a cure is found or Jesus decides to lift it; a positive attitude only means, today, treatments are working. One would never consider saying to a patient of Cancer, AIDS, Down’s Syndrome, or even a Cold to “Just get over it”, “You don’t need to be sick”, “Just go watch some comedy”. So why do people seem to think it’s OK to say these things to people with other mental illnesses? WebMD.com puts it this way “Depression is a serious illness — just like diabetes or heart disease. Expecting positive thinking to cure depression is like expecting a person with diabetes to lower his blood sugar level by thinking happy thoughts. Most people need treatment to beat depression.”

Controlling thoughts, for the Bipolar Disorder suffer for example, is often impossible. That is a major part of the problem. Attempt to control thinking in an episode of racing thoughts, when one cannot complete a full thought before moving on to the next, is impracticable. Concentration is not possible. Calming down, without treatment, when the senses are overloaded is next to unfeasible.

Myth 4: Negativity is Controllable and Unnecessary 

Fact: So often, people see negativity or overreaction as simply being too emotional or not keeping a positive attitude.

They say “No one wants to be around a depressed person”, or “I don’t keep negative people in my life.” 

The fact is that for those who need help, and possibly are not capable of reaching out for it, kicking them when they’re down is not the answer. It only serves to send the message that “You are broken and you won’t be acceptable to be a friend or to be worthy of my love or help until you no longer have something that needs fixing.” 

On the flip side “cheering a person up” is also not the answer. Helping them get treatment, counselling, or other appropriate help is the correct way to deal with the situation.

Myth 5: Christian’s Can’t Get Depressed

Fact: Huh?! Since when does becoming a Christian mean one is no longer a human being with flesh, blood, brains, feelings, and struggles? Saying “Ask Jesus into your heart and your life will be cheery!” is completely unrealistic; not to mention unbiblical. If it is in His will to cure, then it will happen. Until then, faith, though vital, is not the key to getting our own way. God is not a ‘Miracles on Demand’ public service put in place for our convenience and disposal. 

Like it or lump it we are living on this earth under God’s laws and plan; not our own. It could very well be that in order for the patient to complete their purpose on this earth that living with a mental health disorder is vital. How could a person minister to people on the street, for example, about that life if they haven’t experienced it for themselves? God’s Word does not tell us that life with Jesus on this side of Heaven’s gates will be wonderful. He just tells us that Jesus will be with us every step of the way. If we do not struggle, then we do not grow. This includes the challenges of mental illness. The key to having a good life with a lot of blessings is to fully repent, obey His commands, and allow Him to change your life and heart.

Myth 6: Talk Therapy is the Same as Talking to a Friend

Fact: Therapy is not the same for everyone. Psychotherapy is done by professionals trained to treat the symptoms, see problems that may not be obvious to the untrained eye and deal with them, and spot potential new issues. Friends who do not have training in such fields, though their hearts may be in the right place and very much want to help, can actually do more damage to the sufferer’s psyche than good. A support system from loved ones is vital, but it absolutely does not replace therapy.

Myth 7: Hospitalization is for Those Who No Longer Live in Reality

Fact: This myth is one of the most destructive of all the myths, to both patients and the general public. People believe that following the path of treatment is “not for me”, “not for my loved one”, or “it’s only for those who live in their own minds and don’t know who or what is real.” Treatment has been associated with being degraded instead of progress toward health and a productive life. 

Media and the film industry are largely responsible for this by creating a horror movie rendition of life inside the mental health ward, or the office of a psychological professional. Society has fallen for this smokescreen that says patients are violent, abusive, and potential killers; who live forever locked in a rubber room in a straight jacket, screaming their way through electric shock treatments while being ignored, abused and unloved. Every time abuse and violence is associated with mental illness, stigma is strengthened and another person is filled with discrimination and false information; and another life is put in danger.

Myth 8: Medications put a Patient in a ‘Zombie State’ or Makes Them Unrealistically High or Happy

Fact: Scary images fill, both, patients and loved ones with a fear of treatment. This causes many sufferers to quit taking medications, or to never start them in the first place. These beliefs couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact is that the right medications are vital to a healthy, productive life. Medications are not “happy pills”, though they do alter a person’s brain chemistry by helping to put chemicals and neurotransmitters back to intended levels. 

Myth 9: Mental Health Disorders are Caused by Weaknesses

Fact: People often believe mental illness is a weakness; either in a faulty brain, personalities, lives, or failures. Sufferers often wonder things like “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I pull myself out of this depression? Am I weak because I have it? What good does it do to tell people?” The answer to all these questions is, it is an illness that doesn’t know any boundaries such as age, race, culture, sex, time, financial position, fame or celebrity status. It does not discriminate.

by Carley Cooper; Website: CarleyCooper.com; Blogs: Worship Melodies and Tin Roof Sundae. Also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter

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