Mental Health Myths
Author: Jesslyn Ch'ng
In January 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global health emergency. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and everyone of us, be it the loss of our jobs, happiness, freedom, even our loved ones. More than 18 months into the pandemic, we are still nowhere near the end as we try to recover our bearings and attempt to adapt to this “new normal”.
During this difficult time of physical distancing and movement control orders (MCO), our mental health has been heavily affected. On the bright side, mental wellbeing awareness has gradually received more attention, as more have become more informed about the importance of caring for our mental health. With World Mental Health Day around the corner, we would like to address some mental health myths that still persist to this today.
People with mental health issues are mentally “weak” or “not strong enough”.
This is one of the main misconceptions people have when it comes to mental health - that those with mental health conditions are considered as mentally “weak”, which leads to the current mental health stigma that plagues our community. In the long run, this misconception causes individuals and groups to not reach out for professional help when they are in need of one.
Evidence shows that there is no one single cause of poor mental health or mental health disorders. It’s an interplay between the biological, psychological, social and environmental factors. Therefore, it is inaccurate to conclude that the cause of a mental health condition is due to the individual’s “weakness”.
People are not labelled as “weak” when they are down with a common flu or a fever. Instead, the usual suggestions given would be to seek medical attention - because everyone’s health should be prioritised.
The same amount of attention and treatment should be given to those who are affected by a mental health condition too. They are not “weak” for having a mental health condition. Instead, accepting a diagnosis of a mental health disorder and seeking help for it is a form of resilience. People are strong when they reach out for help because they are trying to face their vulnerabilities, they are trying to improve their quality of life.
1. Children are too young to have mental health issues. The truth is, mental health conditions can occur in both adults and children, although how they present them may differ. Adults and children have different capabilities of exhibiting or verbalising their emotions. Same goes for certain mental health conditions: depressed children and teenagers have been reported to be more angry and irritable while depressed adults are more prone to feelings of sadness and emptiness. Childhood experiences may also contribute to the precipitating factor of a mental illness. Some children might have experienced abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, which are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) today. The toxic stress from these ACEs changes brain development and how they respond to stress. Consequently, due to the way their brains are wired, these children might have a higher risk of having a mental health condition. Mental health is not limited to only the adult population. Sometimes it is really more than just a child being “rebellious” or “lazy”.
2. Mental health issues are just an excuse for lazy people to cover up their bad behaviours.
Have you ever heard of the term “hangry”? It’s when the constant pains of hunger make you an irritable person. Similarly, a person who has mental health issues can be imagined as someone who is constantly under pain.
Individuals with mental health issues who did not manage to seek proper help might exhibit more maladaptive behaviours such as being more aggressive or are more prone to lash out at others.
When these individuals do not have an outlet to properly release their stress, their symptoms can worsen, which leads to more aggression or other forms of maladaptive behaviour that might unintentionally hurt more people.Alternatively, their mental health could be improved by learning other healthy or adaptive coping skills.
Studies have found that the stress and aggression mechanisms mutually reinforce each other: When we trigger the brain’s aggression mechanism, our stress hormones increase, and vice versa.
Poor mental health or mental health disorders create distress among individuals who suffer from them. When distress is constantly repressed, the build up becomes harder and harder to manage internally. These bottled up emotions might overwhelm the individual and can lead to unexpected behaviors. Remember not to generalise symptoms, as different people can show distress in very different ways.
3. You will never recover from a mental disorder.
Some people have the misconception that when someone sees a mental health expert, it’s definitely because they are affected by a mental health disorder. This discourages the average person who needs help as they are afraid of being labelled as “mentally unwell” since there is still a strong stigma towards mental illnesses.
However, there is a difference between poor mental health and a mental health disorder. Finding it increasingly difficult to manage our emotions and thoughts could be a sign of poor mental health, but it’s not necessarily due to a mental health disorder. Some of us might just require extra psychological support to navigate through difficult times, e.g. grief, stress, or relationship issues.
Even if someone is diagnosed with a mental disorder, it’s not the end of the world. Whether or not someone recovers from a diagnosis depends on their definition of “recover”, which could range from 'feeling better' to 'developing appropriate coping mechanisms'.
The terms “mental disorder” or “mental illness” are used to describe a range of mental health symptoms exhibited in an individual. Each mental disorder or illness has its own set of symptoms. In order to meet the criteria for a mental disorder, the individual’s symptoms must have caused significant distress or have interfered with their social, occupational, or other important area of functioning for a certain period of time.
Receiving professional mental health care is when a mental health practitioner works together with their client to better manage their issues and be more resilient against their stressors. In other words, “recovery” from a mental disorder is a step-by-step progression towards their mental health goals that actually requires a lot of persistence and hard work.
4. Talking about suicide increases the risk of someone attempting suicide.
This is sadly one of the most common misconceptions when it comes to discussing suicide. This myth has contributed to the stigmatisation of suicide related topics and has consequently caused such topics to be a taboo in the community.
Talking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide attempts, just as talking about smoking does not increase the risk of another individual taking up smoking. On the contrary, it sheds more light on the severity of the issue and it encourages people who are struggling to reach out for professional help. Normalising conversations about suicide is a key step to breaking this stigma that we have in the community.
It’s okay to address suicidal thoughts and ideations, but it’s also important to be mindful when addressing such topics. Studies have found that addressing suicidal topics conscientiously with at-risk populations reduces suicidal ideation. The feeling of being understood and not seen as “weird” reduces the ideation and the attempts. We don’t need to be a mental health professional to help someone in need.
Here are some tips on what you can do to help a closed one who is feeling suicidal:
Be calm and offer a listening ear.
Do not judge or try to fix the problem.
Be aware of the warning signs (e.g. mood swings, alcohol or drug abuse, previous attempts)
Be warm and sincere, focus on the person’s feelings.
Encourage them to seek professional help.
If you would like to read more about suicide ideation and what else you could do to help a close one who is feeling suicidal, here is the link to our blog: What is a Mental Health Crisis (Part 1)
For World Mental Health day this year, the theme “Mental Health in an Unequal World” hopes to highlight the inequalities of life that lead to poor mental health. Social determinants such as financial constraints, lack of education and racism place the underprivileged at a disadvantage towards accessing essential mental healthcare. In these situations, asking someone who is struggling mentally to “snap out of it” isn’t really helpful and assumes that their struggles are caused by personal weaknesses.
Instead, it’s important for us to recognise the social, environmental and economical factors that led to their situation and come together as a community to address these barriers in support of them. We can contribute to improving the mental health of those around us today by starting much needed conversations on addressing stigma and common misconceptions on mental health to shed more insight into the roots of poor mental health. By helping others realise that mental health is the responsibility of our community, we hope to encourage compassion within others to support those who are struggling with their mental health.
So, do your part today and let’s aid the recovery of our community by raising awareness on mental health this World Mental Health Awareness day and beyond.
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