The top Google image results for “mentally ill people,” include: John Hinckley (the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan), a homeless man, the Aurora shooter, and pictures of Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Shining.”
These results reflect the reality of how the public views the mentally ill and makes hurtful, stigmatizing assumptions about them. By drawing upon experience from our network of therapists and reaching out to mental health professionals, we readied a dose of reality to debunk the assumptions they encountered one by one and shame the stigma.
It’s time people understand what being mentally ill really means.
Assumption #1: People with Mental Illness are Dangerous and Violent
“If it bleeds, it leads.” This means the media reports disproportionately on cases where people with mental health conditions commit violent acts. Then there’s the film industry where villains are often psychotic. This is one of the main reasons why the top Google image search results are of famous shooters and psychopathic characters from movies.
“There is more about school shootings than positive pieces about real people with mental illness who contribute daily to our world,” BipolarOnline.com CEO Blake LeVine told Talkspace.
Truth: People with Mental Illness Are More Likely to Be Victims
Mentally ill people are actually more likely to be victims of violence, according to a study published in the American Journal of Mental Health.
Most of them are not violent, said Recovery Empowerment Network CEO Gaye Tolman. During her more than 25 years of experience as a mental health professional, she encountered roughly one violent mentally ill person for every 10 she treated.
Assumption #2: Most Homeless People Are Mentally Ill
We all see the occasional mentally ill homeless person shouting obscenities or nonsense, clearly in dire need of psychiatric help. But it’s wrong to assume most homeless people are mentally ill or that they became homeless because of mental illness.
Truth: Most Homeless People Are NOT Mentally Ill
Only 33% of homeless people suffer from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and major depression, according to multiple studies the Treatment Advocacy Center curated in 2014.
Assumption #3: White People Suffer More from Mental Illness
White people receive more treatment for mental illness because they tend to come from privilege that makes them more open to and able to access it. This breeds the assumption they must be more predisposed to mental illness. They do not, however, suffer from it the most.
Truth: Minorities Suffer More from Mental Illness
Due to economic and cultural disadvantages that cause increased stress, minorities are more vulnerable to mental illnesses such as depression.
“Unfortunately, cultural stigma regarding counseling and medication prevents many ethnic minority individuals from seeking mental health treatment,” Kimber Shelton, Ph.D., told Talkspace.
African Americans are most at risk and have limited access to mental health care, according to the American Psychological Association.
Assumption #4: People Who Look or Act Happy/Normal Aren’t Mentally Ill
Therapist Jessica Marchena, LMHC, told Talkspace about a family friend who committed suicide despite having a great career and being happily married. People who don’t understand mental illness look at those like Marchena’s friend and think, “Everything seems to be going great for him. How could he be depressed?”
Truth: Mentally Ill People Don’t Act or Look a Certain Way
The face of mental illness can be the same as any other. It doesn’t make people look or behave in any way we are guaranteed to notice or perceive as abnormal. Remember people with mental illness are not “crazy.”
Assumption #5: People With Mental Illness Are at Fault Because They Don’t Have Enough Willpower to Change
Therapist Michelle Cleary has met people who believe those who struggle with depression can will away their symptoms but are too lazy and unmotivated to do so. Roughly half of the other mental health professionals we spoke with listed this as a common misconception about depression and mental illness as a whole.
People sometimes exacerbate this by judging the mentally ill as melodramatic or too stubborn to change, Seattle-based counselor Kristen Martinez told Talkspace.
Truth: People Are Usually Not at Fault
Blaming someone for struggling with depression is like telling a woman with breast cancer she is dying because she doesn’t want to live badly enough. Mental or not, illnesses can come without just cause. People can be barreling towards the diagnosis without realizing it. And that’s not the only similarity mental and medical illnesses have.
Assumption #6: Mental Illness and Physical Illness Are Separate
People who don’t understand mental illness say the symptoms are “not real” or “in your head,” but the mind affects the body and vice versa.
This is an especially prevalent issue for mothers who suffer from postpartum depression, said psychologist Katayune Kaeni. People make them feel something is “wrong with them” rather than accepting it as an illness to be treated.
Truth: Mental Illness Can Have Medical Symptoms and Visa Versa
Mental illnesses such as depression have caused aches, pain, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances, appetite changes and more, according to the National Library of Medicine. Conversely, the stress of coping with medical illnesses can lead to mental illness. The mind and body are intertwined and tend to push and pull on each other rather than acting independently.
Assumption #7: People with Mental Illness Need Medication
Because psychotropic medications such as antidepressants are a popular way to treat mental illness, those not familiar with it assume drugs are necessary and that mentally ill people take them their entire lives.
Truth: Meds Are Not Always Necessary
People have used psychotherapy alone to treat mental illness or a combination of therapy and medication. In many cases, clients prefer talk therapy only.
Assumption #8: Mental Illness Defines the Sufferer
Because mental illness directly influences behavior more than medical illnesses, people sometimes see it as a defining trait. Ruth Spalding, LMSW, highlighted a linguistic tendency for people to more commonly use “he is” language for mental illness rather than “he has” language. Now consider the opposite: Wouldn’t it be weird if you said “he is celiac disease” instead of “he has celiac disease”?
Truth: It’s a Small Part of Who They Are
With the vast majority of people who struggle with mental illness, you won’t know they have that burden unless they tell you. And if they do tell you, know it shouldn’t overshadow everything else you know about them.
Assumption #9: They Are Fundamentally Different People
Some of the therapists we spoke with had clients who felt or believed other people felt they were a fundamentally different type of human, as if having mental illness meant they were different from birth. The media and film industry exacerbates this feeling of otherness by using extreme cases to portray the mentally ill as people who think and operate differently than others (think “A Beautiful Mind”).
Truth: We Are Usually Not So Different
It is possible for someone to become mentally ill and then treat that illness.
“I was a Vice President before I had my breakdown,” Tolman (mentioned earlier) said. “People don’t know what to look for.”
Assumption #10: All Mentally Ill People Keep it to Themselves
This assumption is another result of the popular depiction of mentally ill people as disturbed, reclusive and putting on a front to appear “normal.” Many sufferers don’t mention their illness because they succumb to the stigma or worry it will get them fired. There are, however, those who speak out about it.
Truth: Stars and Everyday People Speak Openly About It
Public or professional environments that welcome people to be open about their struggles with mental illness are rare but do exist. Tolman said many of her staff, like her, have dealt with mental illness and used their experiences to connect with clients.
There are also celebrities with mental health initiatives such as Demi Lovato’s Be Vocal. She has spoken publicly about the challenges of dealing with bipolar disorder.
What We Can Do
Once people acknowledge these assumptions and learn to stop making them, they can focus on the real signs people need help. If we push hard enough to break the stigma and understand the facts about mental illness, maybe we can push successful mental health warriors like Demi Lovato to the top search result for “mentally ill people.”