10 Myths About Mental Illness Are Debunked.
This week, Oct. 6 to Oct. 12, we are celebrating Mental Illness Awareness Week, also known as Mental Health Awareness Week. “Celebrating” might seem like an odd word as the mention of the phrase “mental health” will inevitably bring up thoughts of suffering and dysfunction. But as we strive to make ourselves more aware of the scope and nature of mental illness, we should make every effort to combat outdated notions about mental disorders that see them as the equivalent of a living death sentence, dooming their victims to a lifetime of misery, loneliness and unbearable emotional pain. The truth is that mental illness can be overcome, and those who are diagnosed with one disorder or another can, with prompt and effective treatment, go on to live satisfying and productive lives—and this is a reality worth celebrating, even as we acknowledge the enormous suffering that mental illness can cause when it is un-diagnosed, un-treated and left to run amok.
Unfortunately, old-fashioned ideas sometimes die hard, and there are a discouragingly large number of myths still circulating about mental disease that too many people are choosing to take seriously. In order to understand and combat mental illness, we must be able to separate the truth from the lies. Mental Health Awareness Week provides the perfect opportunity to get the truth out about some of these widely-believed falsehoods.
It is important to emphasize that the 10 myths about mental illness we will discuss here are not the only myths out there. The existing myths about mental health are many, and if you are serious about educating yourself thoroughly on this subject, you will need to read more than just this article.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s get on with our countdown:
Myth #1: When people suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, they need to keep everything neat and clean at all times.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has come to be associated in the minds of the general public almost exclusively with an excessive fear of disorder and messiness and a preoccupation with personal hygiene. Popular cultural portrayals of the disorder have probably played a big role in propagating this belief, but this myth is unfortunate because it oversimplifies an extremely complex condition. OCD sufferers can be haunted by a variety of obsessions, and the rituals they create to help deal with their extreme anxiety are diverse and unpredictable. The bottom line is that a constant concern with neatness or cleanliness does not automatically mean OCD is present, nor should it be assumed to be absent because a person obsesses over something entirely different.
Myth #2: Bipolar sufferers always experience extreme highs or lows that alternate continuously over the course of their lives.
Bipolar disorder does cause mood changes that are noticeable. However, the severity, frequency and pattern of appearance of their manic and depressive episodes are all highly variable. Some bipolar victims will experience the highs without the lows or vice versa, while still others will only suffer the symptoms of the disorder periodically and for inconsistent periods of time. So while alternating manic and depressive states do generally define bipolar disorder, their manifestations do not follow hard and fast rules.
Myth #3: Antisocial personality disorder causes shyness and discomfort around people.
If a person feels extremely anxious and uncomfortable in social situations, he or she may have social anxiety disorder or avoidant personality disorder, both of which cause sufferers to forgo interpersonal encounters whenever possible. However, one condition they would never be diagnosed with based on such behavior would be antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). In this case, the “antisocial’ refers not to discomfort around people but to disinterest; individuals with antisocial personality disorder are largely indifferent to the feelings of others, and they will often use people shamefully and without remorse in order to get what they want. People with ASPD sometimes even seem unconcerned with their own welfare and may take foolish risks if they believe it will bring some sort of instant gratification. None of this behavior has anything to do with social anxiety, which affects sensitive people who actually care greatly about others but who struggle to express it.
Myth #4: People with dyslexia have great trouble learning to read because they see words backward and letters out of order.
Most dyslexics can and will learn to read, so while they may face obstacles, they are not prisoners of their condition. Second, dyslexics do not actually see letters or words in a disordered fashion, but the way they process information is different and as a result they may have trouble learning to read via conventional means. Dyslexics can sometimes have problems expressing themselves verbally when working with written language, and this seems to be the reason for the misconceptions about how the condition affects its sufferers as they attempt to learn to read. And for the sake of clarity, it should be pointed out that dyslexia is more of a mental disability than a mental illness in the classical sense, even though in the past dyslexics were often sent to psychiatrists for treatment.
Myth #5: Schizophrenics always hear voices in their heads.
Some people with schizophrenia do hear voices that appear to originate from inside their own heads. However, when schizophrenics do suffer from auditory hallucinations, it is more common for them to experience those voices as if they were coming from the outside world, from inanimate objects or empty space. And while some schizophrenics hallucinate in this manner, this is far from a universal symptom of this life-altering disorder. Like most forms of mental illness, schizophrenia is far more complex and diverse than the public has been led to believe, and no one should pay too much attention to the heavily fictionalized characterizations of the disease that have routinely appeared in popular culture outlets.
Myth #6: When people have multiple personality disorder, their various personalities will exist entirely separate from each other, and when one personality is in control, the others will be dormant and unaware of what is happening.
This view of dissociative identity disorder (the correct label for the condition) undoubtedly comes straight from TV and the movies. But while portraying DID in this light might work for the purposes of dramatic storytelling, the real picture—as usual—is decidedly more complex. People enmeshed in a network of dissociated personalities, which usually form in response to severe trauma in early life, live in a multi-layered reality that is not bound by any particular rules or restrictions. So while it is true that control over the mind will tend to pass from one personality to the other, DID sufferers are seldom unaware of what is happening inside of them, at least not completely.
Myth #7: Kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are unable to pay attention to much of anything.
ADHD is a very poorly understood condition. Young people who suffer from it can actually focus quite effectively, but usually only if the topic is interesting to them and if they are not distracted by other sights, sounds, smells or activities going on in the room. Kids with ADHD tend to focus freelance-style, which can be ineffective in structured learning environments but certainly does not prevent them from learning or achieving academic success, as long as their special learning requirements are acknowledged and respected.
Myth #8: A person with selective mutism knows how to speak perfectly well but either cannot do so because of past childhood trauma or refuses to so for reasons only known to him or her.
Selective mutism is not an outgrowth of trauma nor is it about a simple refusal to be social. In fact, selective mutism is a type of social anxiety disorder that leaves its sufferers so paralyzed with fear in certain situations that they are unable to speak even though they may want to do so. Like any other type of social anxiety condition, selective mutism can be overcome with treatment, but that treatment must be oriented practically and focused in the here and now if it is to be effective.
Myth #9: Autism leaves its victims unable to cope with life or survive on their own.
Autism is now referred to as autism spectrum disorder, which is a testament to the fact that the intensity of the symptoms it causes can vary widely from person to person. Fortunately, many autism sufferers will be in the mild to moderate range, and with therapy and focused intervention, they can often go on to achieve great success in academics and in life in general. In many cases, even those diagnosed with more severe forms of autism spectrum disorder have responded amazingly well to treatment and specialized therapy and have gone on to live quite normally. Autism is a disturbing diagnosis, to be sure, but it is not a horrific mental disability that cannot be overcome; the reality is just the opposite.
Myth #10: Many mental illnesses are bogus, having been invented by doctors trolling for patients and pharmaceutical companies looking to sell more drugs.
The problem with this myth is that it may have an element of truth to it. Television viewers in the United States are constantly bombarded with advertisements from drug companies trying to sell them new medicines to treat “disorders” or “conditions” that seem to be multiplying at warp speed. However, just because the boy occasionally cries wolf does not mean that there are no wolves in the forest, and many who really are there would like nothing better than to huff and puff and blow your house of good health down.
We all must be discriminating as health consumers and we should certainly not believe everything we hear or read. But we should not carry our cynicism to such an extreme that we end up denying the existence of mental illness. No matter what exaggerations may be distorting the picture, it is undeniable that mental disorders are adversely affecting the lives of tens of millions of people of all ages in the U.S. alone. While there very well may be some who are trying to exploit the mental illness concept for their own benefit, such a ruse would not be possible if mental illnesses were not so prevalent in the first place.