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Fact Sheet: Common Mental Health Myths and Misconceptions

What am I getting wrong about mental health?

While people in Canada are talking about mental health more than ever, misconceptions in the media and elsewhere are keeping the stigma alive. Thankfully, by learning (and unlearning) some of the most common myths and misunderstandings, we can all start to replace stigmatizing attitudes with supportive conversations.

The following myths and misconceptions list (not exhaustive) lets you consider which ones you’ve heard, and which you’ve believed.

1 – Mental health is the same as mental illness.

Mental health and mental illness are related but distinct.

Mental health refers to one’s general state of psychological and emotional well-being. Much like physical health, it exists on a continuum from healthy to ill and can fluctuate based on many factors. Maintaining good mental health is an important aspect of one’s overall well-being.

A mental illness (sometimes called a mental health problem) is a condition diagnosed by a qualified health-care professional. The diagnostic criteria often involve a combination of changes in emotions, moods, or behaviours associated with distress, and/or impaired daily functioning. Examples include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental illness.

2 – It’s obvious when someone has mental illness.

Mental illness is largely invisible, especially when someone is managing their symptoms with the support of a health-care provider. Even in new or untreated mental illness, many people are good at hiding their symptoms (often due to stigma, including self-stigma). Courses like Mental Health First Aid train people to recognize the signs of declining mental health and equip them with the tools to respond appropriately.

3 – People with mental illness are often violent.

News headlines about violent crimes by people with mental illness have contributed to the myth that the two go hand in hand. While this is a complex area of research, experts agree that mental illness alone is not a predictor of violence. Many studies suggest that people with mental illness are actually more likely to be the victims of violent crime.

4 – Mental illness can only be treated with medication.

Hands Together

Medication can be an effective tool for managing the symptoms of some mental illnesses, but it is often one part of a broader treatment plan. In some cases, evidence-based psychotherapy such cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can have similar effects to drug treatments. In others, drug therapy might be the best course of action, even if just to make other forms of therapy more effective.

In either case, working with a qualified health-care professional is essential for determining whether medication is appropriate, which one works best for an individual, and how it fits into a larger treatment plan. There’s no shame in using medication to manage mental illness, just as there’s no prize for going without it.

5 – Some people are immune to mental illness.

No one is immune to mental illness, but risk and protective factors can play a big role. Risk factors are things like poverty, childhood trauma, and inadequate housing. Protective factors include strong social connections, meaningful employment, and physical activity. While someone with many protective factors can still develop a mental illness (and vice versa), they change the likelihood significantly.

6 – Mental illness is a lifelong diagnosis.

Mental illness is treatable. It is possible to recover and even thrive following a mental illness. Recovery can involve the complete resolution of a mental health problem, but it can also be about having a renewed focus on personal control, resilience, and day-to-day functioning. Even with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, which typically require lifelong symptom management, individuals can experience a very high quality of life.

7 – People with mental illness don’t make good employees.

People with mental illness can excel at work, just like anyone else. Many mental illnesses are episodic, meaning a worker may experience highs and lows, not unlike someone with a physical health condition. It’s important that managers look for signs of declining mental health in all employees, as mental illness can affect anyone. With the right treatment, accommodation, and support, meaningful employment can benefit workers with mental illness and their employers.

8 – Mental health support is expensive.

While mental health services can be costly without private insurance, help is available.  Many provinces and territories offer their own low- or no-cost mental health programs. There may also be community health services available near you. To find out, consider contacting your local CMHA branch or speaking with your health-care provider.

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