16 Wrong Ideas about Mental Illness

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
August 30, 2023
16 Wrong Ideas About Mental Illness

Don’t assume the worst if you hear someone you know is diagnosed with a mental illness. Many people respond to treatment and thrive. Here’s what you should know. 

Mental illness is still embarrassing to admit, in part because friends and family may summon the worst images from the movies: A person who will never function, may become violent, and is beyond help.

None of that is necessarily true or even likely. 


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Myth one

Mental illness is rare. 

The reality is that one in five people experience some form of mental illness during any given year. About one in 20 have a serious condition, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression

Myth two

People with a mental illness are always ill and lost in their hallucinations or delusions. 

That’s not always the case. Even people with severe illnesses may be in touch with reality more often than they are not.

Many people quietly bear their symptoms without showing any signs. You probably know one of them without realizing it.     

Myth three

Most people with mental illness are either homeless or committed to mental hospitals. 

The truth is that most Americans who have a mental illness live in the community and lead productive lives.

Those who need hospitalization usually stay only for treatment and return home. Some people, however, do become homeless.

Myth four

Mentally ill people are likely to become violent.

The fact is people who are out of touch with reality during a mental health crisis are more often frightened, confused, and in despair than violent.

Only about 3 percent of people with serious mental illness had committed a violent act within a four-year period, in one study. If they also had a substance use disorder, the figure rose to 10 percent.

When mentally ill people are compared with people from their own neighborhood, research suggests the rates of violence are about the same.

People without mental illness commit most violent crimes — as many as 95 percent of them. On the other hand, people with severe mental illness are more than 10 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than the general population.

Myth five

Bad genes cause mental illness. 

The reality is that mental illnesses usually arise from a mix of causes, including your biology, history, and environment.  

Myth six

Only kids have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

It’s true that symptoms first show up in children, but many of them may not have been diagnosed at the time.

It’s common for symptoms to last into adulthood, and adults may need treatment, too. 

Myth seven

Schizophrenia means split personality, and there is no way to control it. 

In reality, people often confuse schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder.

People with schizophrenia have symptoms ranging from social withdrawal to hallucinations and delusions, which can be managed with therapy and medication.  

Myth eight

Depression goes along with aging. 

Actually, people tend to get happier from middle age on. Although some older people may lead quieter lives over time, it is appropriate to show concern when they become lethargic or withdrawn.  

Myth nine

Suicides are more common during dark days and cold months. 

While it’s true that a lack of sunlight can trigger a low mood, an effect called seasonal affective disorder, suicides peak during the spring and summer. That may be, in part, because of the inflammation associated with seasonal allergies.

Suicides can also increase on sunny days or in weeks after a dark spell. It may be that some depressed people get a surge of energy and decide to end their pain when the sky lightens. 

Myth 10

Suicides increase during the winter holidays. 

The suicide rate is actually lowest during November, December, and January.

Myth 11

Scandinavians are always gloomy because of their long, dark winters. 

While Sweden had a high suicide rate in the 1960s, a surge in social welfare and mental health services brought the numbers down dramatically. Finland has also had high rates.

Today, Scandinavian countries score high on measures of happiness and have below-average suicide rates. They do, however, have high rates of suicide among young people.

Myth 12

Women and young people are more likely to die by suicide. 

It’s true that women are more likely to suffer from depression, but the male suicide rate is about four times higher. Older Americans have the highest rates.

Americans ages 15 to 24 do have a high suicide rate, more than 19 percent, compared to other age groups. But it’s slightly lower than the rate for 75- to 84-year-olds. People aged 85 and up have a suicide rate of 22 percent.

Myth 13

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as “shock treatment,” is painful and barbaric. 

Fact is, patients who receive ECT are asleep and under anesthesia, so they do not feel anything. It has given new lives to people who suffer from severe depression that has not responded to other treatments. 

Myth 14

A lack of serotonin in your brain causes depression.

The popularity of drugs that boost serotonin availability has made that theory influential for decades. But when the drugs work, it’s most likely for other reasons.

The main areas of serotonin research provide no consistent evidence of there being an association between serotonin and depression, and no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations,” a group of British researchers wrote in one review of research.

Myth 15

You can’t save people who want to die by suicide because they’ll just try again.

Actually, nine out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive do not die by suicide later on. About 70 percent don’t try again.

There is always hope for improvement.

Myth 16

Family and friends can’t help someone who is mentally ill. 

Most adults with diagnosable problems don’t receive treatment. You can help them find mental health services and treat them with respect and care. You can also help them overcome shame and model or suggest coping methods.

Act quickly if you see disturbing signs in a young person. Symptoms of half of all mental health disorders appear before a person turns 14. Early treatment makes a huge difference.


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August 30, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN