Myths and facts about mental illness

What comes to mind when you think ‘mental illness’?

There is probably a range of emotions, images and memories that this triggers for you, not all of which may be positive.

There are many myths, misunderstandings, stereotypes and attitudes that surround mental illness. These result in the judgement, discrimination, and isolation of people with mental illness, as well as their families and carers.

Browse through the common myths and facts below to rethink mental illness.

Myth: Mental illness is incurable and lifelong

Fact: With the right kind of help, treated appropriately and early, most people recover fully and have no further episodes of illness. For others, mental illness may recur throughout their lives and require ongoing treatment. This is the same as many physical illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. Like these other long-term health conditions, mental illness can be managed so that individuals live life to the fullest.

Although some people become disabled as a result of ongoing mental illness, many who experience even very major episodes of illness live full and productive lives.

Myth: People are born with a mental illness

Fact: A vulnerability to some mental illnesses, such as bipolar mood disorder, can run in families. But other people develop mental illness with no family history.

Many factors contribute to the onset of a mental illness. These may include stress, bereavement, relationship breakdown, unemployment, social isolation, a major physical illness, physical and sexual abuse, or disability. Our understanding of the causes of mental illness is growing.

Myth: Only certain types of people develop a mental illness

Fact: As many as one in five Australians may develop a mental illness at some stage in their lives. Everyone is vulnerable to mental health problems. It affects people regardless of age, education, income or culture.

Myth: Mental illness is caused by a personal weakness

Fact: A mental illness is not a character flaw. It is caused by a complex interplay of genetic, biological, social and environmental factors. Seeking and accepting help is a sign of resilience and strength.

Myth: People with a mental illness are dangerous

Fact: This false perception underlies some of the most damaging stereotypes for people with mental illness. People with a mental illness are seldom dangerous. Even people with the most severe mental illness, whose symptoms may cause them to act in bizarre or unusual ways, are rarely dangerous.

Myth: Mental illness is a form of intellectual disability or brain damage

Fact: They are illnesses just like any other, such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. Yet the traditions of sympathy, support, and flowers given to people with physical illnesses are often denied to those with a mental illness.

Myth: People with a mental illness can ‘pull themselves out of it’

Fact: A mental illness is not caused by personal weakness and is not ‘cured’ by personal strength.

Myth: People with a mental illness should be isolated from the community

Fact: Most people with a mental illness recover quickly and do not need hospital care. Others may have short admissions to hospital for treatment. Only a very small number of people with mental illness (less than 1 in 1000) need hospital care. Improvements in treatment over recent decades mean that most people live in their communities, and there is no need for the confinement and isolation that was commonly used in the past.

Busting the myths

The beyondblue Workplace Mental Health Awareness e-learning Program examines some common myths and misconceptions about depression and anxiety disorders. View the free interactive online program from beyondblue.

From ‘What is mental illness’, used by permission of the Australian Government.

Thanks to the Mental Health Commission of WA.