Mental illness isn’t like a sinus infection. You can’t just wait it out or take a pill to make everything go away. Our brains are complex and enigmatic, and mental illness is no different. This leads to a lot of misconceptions that make recovery much harder. Here are a few things you should know, whether you’re a sufferer or not.
Before we talk about misconceptions, it helps to identify just what “mental illness” means. Everyone has stress and difficult emotions from time to time and this is normal. Mental illness, on the other hand, is any condition that makes it difficult to function in daily life. It can affect your relationships, your job, or prevent you from reaching any otherwise attainable goal.
If that sounds like a pretty wide definition, it’s because the human mind is complex. Mental illness can range from anxiety and mood disorders that have a severe and tangible effect on your emotions and motivation, to psychotic disorders like schizophrenia that affect your perceptions or senses with things like delusions or hallucinations. Living with any of these can be debilitating. We rely on our senses, emotions, and perceptions to get us through the day. When any of those fail, it can make life difficult.
I’ve struggled with mental illnesses for decades. Over the years, I’ve had diagnoses ranging from depression to Asperger’s and I’ve encountered a ton of misconceptions. Some are basic things that the general population just hasn’t learned about, while others are deep-seated beliefs that even I have had to un-learn. Here are some of the ones that still seem to stick around.
Misconception: “Mental Health Problems Last Forever”
Doctors, patients, and friends alike that talk about mental illnesses will often tell you it “never really goes away.” They say this both to set expectations (as there is rarely a “cure” in the traditional sense) as well as to help others understand the struggle that those with mental illnesses go through. The problem is, this is often interpreted to mean that the symptoms of mental illness never go away.
If this were true, therapy and treatment would be pointless. In fact, telling someone with a mood disorder like depression that their problems will never go away can sap their already dwindling motivation to try. However, the truth is a bit more encouraging: while we don’t know how to cure mental illness, it’s very possible to treat many types of mental illness to the point that the symptoms can be managed and a person can live a fulfilling, happy life.
For many decades, it was assumed that once a person reached adulthood, their brain would no longer change. As David Hellerstein, MD explains, even as recently as the 80s and 90s, the concept of the brain physically changing over time was given little thought. However, in recent decades, researchers have increasingly discovered that neuroplasticity—which simply means that your brain creates new connections and restructures itself throughout the course of your life—can play a huge part in how your brain develops and changes over time:
In brief, we have realized that ‘neuroplasticity,’ the ongoing remodeling of brain structure and function, occurs throughout life. It can be affected by life experiences, genes, biological agents, and by behavior, as well as by thought patterns. Interestingly, exercise and physical activity in general have a major effect on ‘neurotrophic factors’-chemicals that stimulate the growth and recovery of brain cells.
The concept of neuroplasticity is still a new area of research, but it does give hope to those with mental illness: just because your symptoms are intense and unbearable right now doesn’t mean they always will be. Like many people, I first learned about this idea just a few years ago. It was the first time in decades that it seemed like there was hope for my situation.
It’s still not an easy road, of course, especially for psychotic disorders like schizophrenia that can be much harder to treat. However, over time and with the help of therapy and treatment, your brain can adapt. You might never be “cured”, but it’s still possible that having a mental illness may someday be something that’s only a minor annoyance, rather than a crippling disability that makes it hard to even get out of bed.
Misconception: “Only Violent or Unstable People Have Mental Health Problems”