Serious mental illness is scary and off-putting even for the healthiest among us, but for those afflicted it’s a thousand times worse. They’re often isolated, misunderstood and adrift from lives that once felt purposeful.
Sometimes they even hear voices and suffer terrifying delusions. And it isn’t just the sick person who suffers – mental illness can and often does devastate whole families. Part of what hurts, of course, is the illness itself, and, for families, the loss of a fully functioning loved one. But when you add to that the suffering caused by stigma and shame, and the resulting secrecy that keeps whole families from asking for help, you have a truly vicious cycle.
The good news is that much of the stigma and shame around mental illness result from beliefs that are completely untrue. When these myths are exposed and replaced with knowledge, kindness and common sense, hope and progress are possible.
Following are five common myths about mental illness - and the truths that can set its sufferers free:
Myth No. 1. Mentally ill people are a lost cause.
Truth: Mentally ill people can and do get better.
For a long time people thought the best way to treat the mentally ill was to just warehouse them - lock them up in an institution or hide them away at home - but it turns out that much more is possible. Kindness, respect and inclusion go a long way toward helping anyone, no matter how sick they are. By treating mentally ill people with the same respect you’d pay anyone else, you can begin to make not only their lives better but the lives of their families and caregivers too.
Each case is unique, of course, but compassionate care, the right drugs and a network of tenacious helpers can lead even severely mentally ill people back to their own lives. Sometimes they may get sick again, but they can get better again, too. Life is like that.
Myth No. 2. Mentally ill people are scary and sad. Associating with them is dangerous and depressing.
Truth: Suffering is scary and sad, but people can be helped.
Mentally ill people who are helped to find their way back to their real selves actually tend to be grateful, hopeful and happy, and that makes the people who help them hopeful and happy too.
Myth No. 3. The mentally ill are just too strange so don’t even try to talk to them.
Truth: Not only can you talk to mentally ill people, you might find them rather interesting.
People with mental illness might not hold the same beliefs or observe the same conventions that you do, but for just that reason they can sometimes be startlingly insightful and funny. Besides, after you get to know someone with mental illness you’ll see he’s just a human being like you except one who happens to be living with an isolating brain disease. You have the power to break through a little of that isolation just by making contact.
Myth No. 4: Mentally ill people are too out of it to notice how you treat them.
Truth: If anything, mentally ill people tend to be hyper-aware and watchful.
Just be yourself around people with mental illness and be as polite as you would be to anyone else. If sometimes they do or say things that are out of the ordinary and make you laugh, that’s OK, but include them in the joke. Like anyone else, they’ll appreciate it.
Myth No. 5: It’s all the parents’ fault.
Truth: It’s probably not the parents’ fault.
Nobody knows exactly what causes the most serious forms of mental illness but most scientists agree that schizophrenia probably results from a combination of genetic and other biologic or environmental factors that are then triggered by stress or trauma. All parents make mistakes, but serious mental illness is rarely the exclusive result of bad parenting.
Blaming parents for their children’s mental illness is not only unfair but it makes life worse for their ill offspring too. Since parents are usually the ones left trying to figure out what to do, early on at least, they need all the support and sympathy they can get.
Myths, fears and old wives’ tales about mental illness stigmatize sick people and their families while kindness and common sense help. Maybe what it comes down to is the golden rule. Just ask yourself this: how would you like to be treated if your world suddenly started to shrink, darken and change in uncontrollable ways?
Margaret Hawkins is the author of “How We Got Barb Back: The Story of My Sister’s Reawakening After 30 Years of Schizophrenia” (Conari).