Mental Health :: Top five myths about mental illness

The stigma of mental illness acts as a roadblock for treatment for the more than 54 million Americans, one in 5, according to the National Institute on Mental Health, who suffer from a mental disorder in any given year. Of that number, many don?t seek treatment, at a time when awareness about mental illness has grown.

In recognition of Mental Health Month in May, The Menninger Clinic tackles some of the top myths about mental illness, with the facts.

Myth #1: People with mental illness are weak. Some of the world?s most powerful and influential people have struggled with mental illness. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill battled depression. Star athletes, known for their discipline, CEOs of major corporations, doctors, lawyers and other professionals also deal with mental illness.

Making the decision to seek help for mental illness, and participating in treatment takes strength in itself.

Myth #2: Medication cures mental illness. New medications made available over the past few decades have helped countless people manage the symptoms of their mental illness. However, taking a pill is not a cure-all for people with severe mental illness.

?Many people are looking for that magic pill, but medication is only a part of the treatment process for mental illness,? says Patricia Daza, Ph.D., a staff psychologist with the Hope Program at The Menninger Clinic. ?Treatment is also about behavioral changes that need to happen and also changes in family dynamics.?

Individual and group therapy with a counselor or psychiatrist help patients gain greater understanding of the factors contributing to their mental illness and gives them support, Dr. Daza says.

?Medications for mental disorders don’t cure the illness in the way, for example, antibiotics may cure an infection,? adds Joyce Davidson, M.D., a psychiatrist with expertise in psychopharmacology and medical director of the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Program at Menninger. ?Instead, they help manage the symptoms in the same way medications may help reduce symptoms in other chronic illnesses such as arthritis or diabetes. Often patients will report that the medications have ?given me a thicker skin? or ?the medication has helped take the edge off.? Psychotherapy and behavioral changes can also lessen symptoms of psychiatric illness, sometimes to the point that structural changes in the brain can be seen on brain imaging.?

Myth #3: People with mental illness could just ?snap out of it? if they wanted to. Telling someone with depression or other form of mental illness to ?just snap out of it,? minimizes a person?s struggle with mental illness.

?It would be like saying to someone with the flu, diabetes or hypertension to snap out of it,? says Jon Allen, Ph.D, senior Menninger psychologist and author of the book, Coping with Depression. ?I think we are having a hard time accepting that mental illnesses are real illnesses, not imagined, despite all we know about the biology and physiology of mental illness.?

Technological advances and research provide increasing evidence of how mental illness affects the body. Brain imaging studies vividly show the changes that occur in the brain because of mental illness. ?We now can see changes in brain function and structure at the cellular level,? Dr. Allen adds. ?Also, changes in the brain affect the whole body.?

Myth #4: Children don?t have mental illness. Childhood is often thought of as a carefree and idyllic time, but for many children struggling with mental illness, the reality is quite different. Ten percent of children and adolescents in the United States suffer from serious emotional and mental disorders that cause significant functional impairment in their day-to-day lives at home, in school and with peers, according to a 1999 Report of the Surgeon General. In any given year, only 20 percent of children and adolescents with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services

These disorders may include pervasive developmental disorders, psychiatric disorders, depression, behavioral disorders, attention-deficit disorders, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and substance abuse. Because early intervention is so important, parents shouldn?t hesitate to seek treatment if they believe their child has the signs or symptoms of mental illness, say mental health experts.

Myth #5: People with mental illness don?t get well. With the right treatment, people with mental illness improve and can live normal lives. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, between 70 and 90 percent of individuals with mental illness have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of medication and psychological treatments and supports. Patients in treatment for certain mental illnesses, such as depression, may even experience ?recovery,? or stable periods of remission from their mental illness. However, patients who have the best outcomes learn to manage their condition on a continuous basis.

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