BY AMY CAPETTA
As more people speak out about living with mental illness, conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are finding a healthy place in public conversation. But there are still a ton of mental health misconceptions floating around that just perpetuate the stigma surrounding these all-too-common illnesses. Good news: Learning the facts can help — so read on!
‘I’m depressed’ means ‘I’m sad.’
It’s important we make a clear distinction between depression and sadness, which are two very different things: Sadness is a regular part of life that everyone experiences at some point, and it passes over time. Depression, however, can make it continuously difficult for a person to handle his or her everyday responsibilities — and someone who has depression might not even feel “sad” at all, according to the National Institute of Mental Health(NIMH).
According to the NIMH, there are two major types of depression: major depressive disorder (MDD aka clinical depression) and persistent depression disorder (PDD aka chronic depression). But there are many other types of depression beyond and within these. There’s melancholic depression, which is a form of MDD wherein one feels persistently and intensely sad and hopeless; psychotic depression, a combination of major depression plus some form of psychosis, such as delusions or hallucinations; and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that usually occurs during the winter months — and that’s just naming a few.
Anxiety is not the same as occasionally being worried or fearful about something — the clinical condition manifests as having physical changes like increased blood pressure, sweating, and dizziness and feeling so tense and worried (often recurring thoughts) that one often avoids certain situations because of it, according to the American Psychological Association(APA).
Anxiety disorders are not only a clinical diagnosis, but they’re also the most common type of mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Common anxiety conditions include panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety, specific phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
False — just look at the stats! As of 2010, mental illness and substance abuse disorderswere the leading cause of disability worldwide, with neuropsychiatric disorders (that’s mood disorders like depression, as well as other conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder) being the most common reason for disability in the United States, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
On the contrary, there are many people who live with more than one mental disorder, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM). In fact, depressive illnesses (such as bipolar disorder, major depression, and chronic depression) — which approximately 9.5 percent of adults in America have — can co-occur with many other conditions, including substance abuse and anxiety disorders.
Children don’t have mental health problems.
This is outright false (not to mention potentially dangerous): According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 13 percent of children between the ages of 8 and 15 and 21 percent of kids ages 13 to 18 either already have or will develop a severe mental disorder at some point during their lives. Anxiety disorders are actually estimated to affect one in eight kids, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America(ADAA). And a large November 2016 study found that rates of clinical depression have actually increased over the past decade (ending in 2014) among kids ages 12 to 17. The group that experienced the most notable increase? Teenage girls, with one in six now reporting experiencing at least one episode of clinical depression in the previous year.
If you’re diagnosed with bipolar disorder, you’re doomed.
This misconception might make for gripping television, but it’s totally incorrect. Also known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder is defined by NIMH as a brain disorder that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. It’s divided into four basic types depending on the frequency, duration, and severity of manic, hypomanic (less severe manic episodes), and depressive episodes an individual typically experiences. But with the help of proper treatment, those diagnosed with bipolar disorder can (and do!) lead active and healthy lives.
When it comes to gender, depression doesn’t discriminate. Even though women are about twice as likely to have major depression as men, men and women are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder, which is categorized as a depressive illness, according to JHM. What’s more, four times as many men commit suicide as women, and these men usually have either a depressive disorder or a substance abuse disorder.
Social anxiety just means you’re shy.
Just like depression and sadness, social anxiety and shyness are not equal. Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder is characterized by the fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations. Symptoms can be so severe that the condition disrupts a person’s daily life, resulting in an inability to work or have social or romantic relationships, according to the ADAA.
Therapy is a waste of time.
Few things could be further from the truth. Psychotherapy (aka talk therapy or psychological therapy) is a highly effective treatment for both depression and major depressive disorder, according to Mayo Clinic. What’s more, there are many other types of therapy that can help people learn new coping mechanisms, problem-solving skills, and ways to set realistic life goals.
Anxiety disorder and panic disorder are the same thing.
People often use “anxiety attacks” and “panic attacks” interchangeably, but the two are distinct disorders. People who have panic disorder experience panic attacks, which are brought on unexpectedly and might include heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath. Those who have generalized anxiety disorder, on the other hand, deal with excessive worry, which can manifest itself via muscle tension, fatigue, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating, according to NIMH.
Mental illness only affects the mind.
People who have mental illnesses are also at an increased risk of chronic physical health conditions, including cancer and heart, respiratory, and lung diseases, according to NAMI, which also reports that American adults with a serious mental illness have a shorter life expectancy than others by about 25 years because of a treatable medical condition.
An eating disorder is a willpower issue, not a mental health issue.
Absolutely not. Eating disorders — which include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder — are not only legitimate psychological illnesses on their own, but they also often co-occur with other mental conditions, such as depression, substance abuse, or anxiety disorders, according to NIMH.
Treating an eating disorder requires weeks of rehab.
Not always: Although some patients might need to be hospitalized for a period of time, many people who are diagnosed with an eating disorder can be treated in other, less life-disrupting ways, including with psychotherapy (individual or group), medical care, and nutrition counseling. Research has also found antidepressants can be helpful in treating bulimia, according to NIMH.
Income has nothing to do with mental illness.
People living below the poverty level are more than twice as likely to have depression as those living at or above the line — more than 15 percent versus 6.2 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The real issue with these numbers: Only 20 percent of people with moderate symptoms and 35 percent of people with severe symptoms sought professional help in the past year.
A ‘real’ mental illness takes over your life.
There’s no doubt that having a mental illness has an effect on a person’s life — but with a proper diagnosis and treatment plan, people can manage symptoms and lead productive personal and professional lives, according to NAMI. This is so important to keep in mind as we work to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Hormones have nothing to do with mental illness.
You’ve heard of premenstrual syndrome (aka PMS), but what about premenstrual dysphoric disorder? PMDD is a depressive disorder that causes severe depressive symptoms (extreme sadness, panic attacks, binge eating, a lack of interest in things that used to be enjoyable) anywhere between five and 11 days before menstruation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Although the symptoms are similar to PMS (and both are likely related to changes in a woman’s hormones), women who suffer from PMDD have greater difficulty tackling everyday tasks.
Bipolar disorder is a result of a traumatic experience.
Talk about a sweeping generalization: The majority of doctors agree that there is no one determined cause for bipolar disorder. Rather, they believe it’s a combination of multiple factors that can lead to someone’s increased risk for developing the condition. Plus, research has shown that brain structure and functioning, genetics, and family history can all contribute, as well, according to NIMH.
Anyone who has depression also has anxiety.
There is some truth to this one: Nearly half of people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with some kind of anxiety disorder, according to the ADAA. But the disorders are different, and not every person with one condition will develop the other, the ADAA reports.
Your diet affects your belly, not your brain.
Here’s yet another good reason to watch what you eat: Healthy eating can benefit the body physically and mentally, according to NAMI. Just look at this June 2011 study: Norwegian researchers found that not only were adults who consumed more nutritious diets less likely to be depressed, but also that those who regularly ate unhealthy and processed foods were more likely to suffer from anxiety.
It’s impossible to protect yourself from developing a mental illness.
Sure, some mental illness risk factors, such as genetic makeup, are out of your control. But we’ve got good news: Protective factors, including maintaining a positive self-image, following a healthy diet, being physically active, practicing self-control, and connecting with friends and family, can also improve a person’s mental state, according to SAMHSA.