Here’s a staggering fact: Mental illness affects tens of millions of Americans annually, and we’ve seen the number of mental health concerns grow over the past several years. As an example, one study found 8.5% of participants were experiencing symptoms of depression back in 2017-2018. But a couple of years later, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, that number had exploded. During the pandemic, the study noted that over a quarter of all participants had symptoms of depression.1
To make matters worse, more than half of adults with a mental illness, such as depression, aren’t getting the treatment they need. For one thing, 11% of adults with a mental illness don’t have health insurance, and many who are insured can’t get access to a provider.2 Plus, there’s still a stigma surrounding mental illness, whether it be institutional, public, or self-facing.3
Mental health is a crucial part of everyday well-being — but unfortunately, mental illness is still shrouded in misconceptions. “Those myths can be profoundly harmful,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania. “Even though there’s been a really dramatic change in people accepting and supporting mental health treatment in the last few years, stigmas and myths remain. But the fact is, we could all use a little help sometimes.”
To help reduce the stigma, we’re busting five of the most common mental health myths.
Mental Illness Myth #1: Having a mental illness means you’re flawed.
Having a mental illness isn’t a blemish on your character or a sign of laziness or weakness. More often than not, you can’t pinpoint an exact cause. Life experiences, such as abuse or trauma, can play a part, as can biological factors such as injuries or physical illnesses.4
Chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease can also make it more likely that you’ll develop a mental health condition.5
Another culprit? Your genes. A recent study of 1.2 million people discovered significant links between various genetic variants and depression.6 Additionally, research looking at more than 30,000 pairs of twins found a nearly 80% heritability rate for schizophrenia, one of the most serious mental illnesses.7
In short, anyone can develop a mental illness, no matter how healthy or strong-willed they may believe they are or what their life circumstances may be.
Mental Illness Myth #2: You can get better if you just put your mind to it.
A positive attitude is always a good thing, but many individuals struggling with mental illness may need multiple types of support or treatment. You can’t just talk yourself out of mental illness.
“Friends may say things like, ‘I got through a rough time by reaching out to my family or my church — and that’s how you should get through it too,’” says Smedley. But even though friends and faith leaders can offer positive support and encouragement, “sometimes that’s just not enough,” she says.
Everyone handles a mental illness diagnosis differently. If two neighbors are diagnosed with clinical depression, for example, each will handle the situation differently and need different types of treatment and support.
Smedley adds: “Your friends and family may not have the skills or knowledge to help you through it, and they may be sending you the message that if you don’t get over your mental health issues on your own, you’re somehow defective. That sense of shame can make you feel even worse.”
If you’re experiencing a mental health issue, sometimes your best strategy is to check in with a professional.
Mental Illness Myth #3: Mental illness doesn’t affect children.
Being a child does not protect you from mental illness. In fact, the first signs of half of all mental health disorders appear in people before the age of 14.8 Furthermore, a growing percentage of American youth are experiencing depression, with 15% having reported a major depressive episode in the past year.9 If left undiagnosed and/or untreated, mental illness among children could lead to behavioral issues at home and school, or make it difficult for them to form friendships. These issues may then also persist into adulthood.10
“There’s a myth that childhood is easy and carefree and that kids don’t have real problems,” says Smedley. “But evidence shows that some of the largest rises in mental health problems have been in youth.” According to Smedley, she and her peers in clinical psychology have also seen a dramatic uptick in cases of anxiety, depression, trauma, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among children, as well as an increase in suicide attempts.
Worried about your child? Trust your instincts and seek help.
Mental Illness Myth #4: Medications are harmful — or they just don’t work.
There are various medications that treat mental illness, and numerous studies have shown that they are safe and effective when taken under a doctor’s care.11
But if a friend was prescribed a drug for their mental illness that made them gain weight or caused them to be tired all day, that could color your perception of what your treatment might entail and what certain medications could do to you.
Also, medications aren’t an instant cure, emphasizes Kevin Lazaruk, a registered pharmacist and pharmacist consultant in Los Angeles. It can take four to six weeks before some medications start relieving symptoms, and they may come with some unwanted or potentially harmful side effects (like the ones noted above).
The key, though, is to be proactive. If you bring up your concerns with your clinician and take the time to learn about your options, you’ll have a better shot at finding a treatment plan that works best for you.
Another way is to ask your clinician if they can get more insight into medication options for you with pharmacogenetics (PGx). This type of testing is designed to help your clinician identify medications and dosages at which you’re less likely to experience side effects and more likely to find relief from your symptoms. With PGx testing, your clinician can deliver targeted and personalized care to determine an appropriate treatment plan for you. Genomind is a leader in this field. Learn more here.
Mental Illness Myth #5: Therapy is a waste of time.
If you’re worried that talking to a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist about your troubles is not going to get you anywhere, the data say otherwise. According to the American Psychological Association, studies show that 75% of patients who receive psychotherapy are helped by the process. Furthermore, combining therapy with medication can be an especially effective way to treat mental illness for some.12
“People often have misperceptions about what therapy is based on what they see in movies and on TV,” says Smedley. “Instead of spending years talking about your childhood or your parents or your dreams, we use a short-term process, where you’re a participant, finding ways to take action steps today to start feeling better.”
Bottom Line: If you’re suffering from a mental illness, there are many ways to treat it, whether it’s with therapy, prescription medications, or both. But don’t get bogged down in the myths you’ve heard about mental illness or treatment. If you’re hurting, seek help from a healthcare professional.
- Stat on depression before and during COVID-19: Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020)
- Stat on Americans not getting mental health treatment they need: Mental Health by the Numbers (2022)
- Mental health stigma: Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness (2020)
- Mental Illness Causes: Mental Disorders (2022)
- Connection between chronic illness and mental health: Chronic Illness and Mental Health: Recognizing and Treating Depression (2021)
- Connection between genetic variants and depression: Bi-ancestral depression GWAS in the Million Veteran Program and meta-analysis in >1.2 million individuals highlight new therapeutic directions (2021)
- Study on schizophrenia and twins: Heritability of schizophrenia and schizophrenia spectrum based on the nationwide Danish Twin Register (2018)
- Stats on mental health and children: Mental Health Myths and Facts (2022)
- Depression in youth: The State of Mental Health in America (2022)
- Info on mental illness in kids lasting to adulthood: Key Findings: Children’s Mental Health Report (2021)
- Mental health medications: Medication (2022)
- American Psychological Association stats: Understanding psychotherapy and how it works (2022)