The Faces of Mental Illness: Society’s Misconceptions
With all the advancements that humankind has made throughout history, it is astonishing how our society still has yet to come to terms with speaking up for mental health-related concerns and topics. We still have a long way to go before we can finally bury the stigma and misconceptions regarding mental illness. I am speaking out as just one woman who has dealt with mental health issues as far back as she can remember, and as someone who has cared for those that can not always care for themselves.
I have over six years’ experience working in different residential group homes ranging in positions from a basic direct support professional to an acting supervisor. In the homes that I worked in, I often times cared for persons who were struggling with mental health-related illnesses as well as physical and intellectual disabilities. The first time I ever had to stand up to another person in order to help knock down the barriers caused by mental health stigma, was to defend an individual who I had grown close to while working in one of these group homes.
The guy I was caring for could not verbalize his wants and needs, so often times when he was feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable out in our society he would just lie down on the floor and pretend that he was somewhere else. One particular time, this individual and I were at Walmart shopping when he became overwhelmed and decided to plop down on the floor in the middle of an aisle. People all over stopped what they were doing just to gawk at him. They would point, snicker, and make snide remarks. A Walmart employee appeared and threatened to call the police if I did not make him get up and exit the premises. I could not believe how we were being treated. They moved about acting like his conditions were contagious or part of the plague. I was disgusted and no longer wanted to interact with that part of our society. I started ranting and raving about how stereotypical and cruel they were being.
This wasn’t some monster movie where they pursued the so-called “monsters” by chasing after them with pitchforks and fire. This is another human being that they treated so poorly just because he was not the same as them. I took down the name of the employee who threatened to call the police, and after we left I spent the evening making phone calls and filing complaints. This innocent gentleman was devastated and genuinely hurt. There was no need for him to try to verbalize how he was feeling because it was written all over his face. It was upsetting. I wish I could say that was the last time I had witnessed this kind of discrimination and cruelty, but it was not even close to being the last time.
There are far too many misconceptions about mental illness that our society has put into place. One in five Americans experiences a mental health problem in any given year. That is a lot more people than some tend to realize. I want to help debunk some of this misconceptions and set the record straight. Not just for myself, but for everyone who has ever had to live with or love someone with a mental health condition
The following list is just some of the most common myths and misconceptions about people with mental illness:
People With Mental Illnesses Can’t Lead Normal Lives
Believing that people who live with mental illness cannot possibly lead normal lives is a giant myth and misconception. There are plenty of people out there who have mental illnesses that work in cooperate offices, that stitch up patients after surgery, who graduate from college, and who can make something wonderful out of the cards that they have been mentally dealt. Everyone is different and unique in their own way. I would also like to pose this question to you as well, “What does leading a ‘normal’ life mean anyway?” Does it mean that you move to the suburbs to have 4 children, a big house, and a white picket fence? Absolutely not. Everyone defines what is normal to them in their own way. What may be considered normal for one person, could be off-the-wall crazy to another. In a sense, normal doesn’t even exist.
You Call Tell A Person Has A Mental Disorder By Looking At Them
If this misconception were true, I am sure far more people would run the other way when they see me coming their way! There is no face of mental illness. Your favorite high school teacher could have been bipolar, your doctor could have depression, your lawyer could have social anxiety. The list of possibilities is endless since there is not one set physical feature that can tell you about another person’s mental wellbeing. Believing that there is a specific look given to someone with a mental disorder would be like saying all diabetic people have weight issues, or like stating that everyone who has a heart attack instantly expires. None of which are true. They are misinformed, stereotypical individuals in our society who believe the above-mentioned things to some degree. Other’s would never be able to look at me and tell that I have Bipolar 1 Disorder or severe anxiety.
People Who Are Mentally Ill Are Violent, Danerous, And Need To Be Locked Away
This next misconception is most likely fueled every time someone watches a horror movie or every time they see the horrific setting of a mental health ward that was featured in their favorite movie. People see all these myths and urban legends regarding mental health patients and automatically believe they the person is pure evil and insanely violent. But it’s all just smoke and mirrors and not even close to the truth in the slightest. People associate what they see and hear in movies and on TV with being real life. Hollywood’s in business to keep people entertained. Don’t always believe the information that you get from sources of entertainment. Not all people living with mental illness are violent. Plus, there are tons of people who aren’t mentally ill who are known to be violent.
We aren’t living in the 18th, 19th, or even the 20th century anymore. Locking people up just because of a mental illness isn’t necessarily solving anything. Many of the state-run institutions have closed their doors, especially in the area I live it. Believing that people should be locked away, who have not committed any crimes, is basically just segregating them and watching the life go extinct for them eyes. There is just something about being in an institution that can either help or further harm someone mentally. The real psychiatric units, or Behavioral Health Units, are only meant to house individuals for a short period of time to help bring them out of a crisis. Once they are stable, they are often released and sent to complete outpatient treatments.
Mental Health Issues Are A Sign Of Weakness
There are too many people who assume that a person with mental health issues is automatically weak. In reality, it takes more strength and courage to survive than a person who has never dealt with mental illness could ever begin to fathom. When your mind is unwell, anything can become challenging. The fact alone that people with certain mental or emotional disorders sometimes have to push themselves beyond their limits should show others how strong they really are. Stigma evolves out of the unknown. People tend to fear what they do not know or understand.
Some people believe that crying shows weakness when in reality crying is just a healthy way of releasing emotions. You wouldn’t apologize or feel weak for smiling, would you? Sometimes it takes more than courage just to stay alive when you are feeling mentally unwell. It shows strength, not weakness.
People With Mental Health Disorders Could “Get Over It” If They Wanted To
Telling a person with a mental illness to just “get over it” or “snap out of it” is like telling a diabetic person to suck it up because they could eat sugar if they really wanted to. It doesn’t make sense, does it? If you wouldn’t say something so insensitive to someone with a potentially life-threatening, physical illness, why on earth would you say it someone who suffers from depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. The words “just get over it,” are highly insensitive to someone with a mental illness. We do not choose to be this way. We do not choose to keep our minds in disarray coupled with chaos.
Just because you cannot physically see what is wrong with a person who is struggling with a mental health condition does not mean that it isn’t there. Physical pain often heals, or there are ways to make it a bit more tolerable while mental and emotional pain can run to the very core of your being. You wouldn’t tell a mother who is grieving the loss of her child to “get over it” even though you cannot physically see her pain. Just because mental anguish doesn’t always have a solid cause, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
Mental Illness Lasts Forever
While certain mental health disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder never truly go away, they can be managed well with medication and therapy. It is almost like the disorder goes into remission like cancer would. You never know when a flare-up could potentially strike. But taking preventative measures can keep things from getting out of hand or flying off the handle. Other mental health conditions can seem to lift as suddenly as they came, especially if they were caused by certain circumstances or are situationally caused. People who have mental health conditions can lead “normal” lives. They just have to work at it a bit harder than most other people. Once again, this shows how incredibly strong they have to be!
People With Mental Health Disorders Lack Intelligence
Another common misconception about people with mental illnesses is that they lack brains, intelligence, and are often intellectually disabled. This is a major myth because there are plenty of people out there who aren’t the brightest bulb in the box, but yet have never dealt with mental illness a day in their life. Some people with mental health disorders are imaginative, brilliant, creative, and can be both book and street smart. However, they are also individuals who have a lower IQ than average. Intelligence has nothing to do with your mental health. You are either intelligent, average or below average in the brains department regardless of if you were diagnosed with ADHD, Anxiety, PTSD, or anything else.
Addiction Is A Lifestyle Choice That Just Shows Lack Of Willpower
It seems like an ongoing controversial issue about whether or not addiction is a choice or a disease. In my own opinion, addiction is both. It was your choice to pick up, however, it is not your choice to get addicted. Addiction plays off of multiple factors such as genetics, environmental facts, and often times other underlying mental health conditions can accompany it. You can have all the willpower in the world and still become an addict. It can happen to anyone, with any upbringing, at any age. Addiction, unlike mental health stigma, does not discriminate. Addiction can come in many forms and does not always have to do with drugs or alcohol. People can get addicted to sex, gambling, exercise, sweets, and anything under the sun.
Samantha Steiner is a freelance writer, blogger, and mental health advocate who runs and manages her own mental health blog, MyBipolarMind.com. She has dabbled in different areas in the medical field until a career change, and her own mental health led her back to writing where she can now offer help to others who struggle with mental health and addictions issues through her blog. Samantha lives in Pennsylvania, in the USA, with her furbaby, Buddy.
Samantha is the author of "My Bipolar Mind: You're not alone," she is also a freelance writer, blogger, and mental health advocate who runs and manages her own mental health blog MyBipolarMind.com.