Myths You Should Stop Believing About Mental Health

Our knowledge and attitudes about mental health are improving, say researchers (via the Journal of Education and Health Promotion). However, despite the rise in mental health literacy, we're still bombarded with misinformation. 

Over the years, there have been many campaigns geared towards raising awareness of mental health and busting the stigma attached to having a psychological disorder, per Science Focus. But given the often unseen nature of mental illness, it can be easy to be led astray by persistent misconceptions. Mental health problems affect us all differently — and the challenges they pose can be hard for some people to comprehend, particularly if they've never experienced these kinds of issues themselves.

As a paper in International Journal of Advanced Psychiatric Nursing emphasizes, it's important to peel away false narratives about mental health. Not only do they reinforce stigma, but they often prevent people from opening up and seeking out much-needed support. Here are some common myths about mental health, alongside some facts to set the record straight.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Mental illness is a sign of weakness

One in five adults in the U.S. are affected by a mental health disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Yet, many people still view mental illness as a personal shortcoming. A study conducted by Onepoll on behalf of Vida Health found that 47% of subjects believed that only weak people go to therapy (via SWNS Digital). Many of the respondents claimed that they refused to seek therapy themselves despite struggling, as they felt that their problems weren't "big enough," or that they could "handle their problems on their own."

Recognizing that you have a mental health problem and asking for and accepting help are signs of strength and courage, notes UNICEF. In reality, mental health difficulties are not always something that we can control or snap out of. The belief that mental conditions stem from weakness of character is a key contributor to stigma, per a study published in Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica.

A mental disorder can develop from a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors, according to a review in Frontiers in Psychiatry. Stressful situations and traumatic life events can affect a person's stress systems, such as their sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. This can have a knock-effect on their bodily processes in ways that are not always immediately within their control -– changing the rate of their heart beat and blood pressure, for example. Some of us may need support to help us cope with these changes.

A mental disorder can be overcome solely by willpower

Some people think that mental health problems can be overcome by willpower (via the American Psychological Association). It may seem as though a person with alcohol or drug addiction, for example, could quit drinking or give up drugs if they simply resolved to do so. But this idea gives life to the age-old stereotype that people with psychiatric disorders are lacking self-control and resilience.

Many researchers admit that while willpower may be part of the puzzle, recovering from a complex mental health condition like addiction involves so much more than just sheer determination (via Addictive Behaviors Reports). Taking responsibility for getting and staying better can be empowering. However, it's important to recognize that people aren't addicts simply because they have no self-discipline. 

In the same way that various factors are likely to have contributed towards the development of an addiction problem, people may need different tools and approaches to overcome their condition. This may include a social support network, therapeutic support, lifestyle changes, and learning new habits (via a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

People with mental health disorders can't function normally

It's long been believed that having a severe mental disorder is debilitating, via an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). Historically, individuals who have a psychiatric diagnosis have been subject to job loss, financial insecurity, and even ridicule and shunning. Being labelled as mentally unwell has often left people vulnerable to discrimination.

The introduction of antipsychotic medication in the '60s led to a slight shift in societal attitudes towards mental illness. However, many people still subscribe to the narrative that those with a mental health diagnosis like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder have difficulty participating in everyday activities and responsibilities. In a 2020 study conducted in Nigeria, 34.6% of respondents agreed that people struggling with their mental health should not be given any responsibility (via the Malawi Medical Journal).

Needless to say, mental health conditions may impact an individual's ability to function normally. But with the right kind of support and coping strategies, people with severe mental health problems are able to establish and achieve important life goals (via CMAJ). Many individuals are able to hold down a job, form and maintain relationships, take care of themselves, and make a valuable contribution to society, despite grappling with challenging symptoms.

Mental illness only affects adults

There's a common misconception that mental health problems only affect adults, per It can seem this way, since psychological disorders may go overlooked until adulthood. Symptoms of poor mental health in children are sometimes shrugged off as behavioral problems or a form of attention seeking, notes the Children's Society. However, children and adolescents are just as likely to struggle with mental health issues.

In fact, many psychological problems and illnesses begin to unravel in childhood, according to research (via International Journal of Mental Health Systems). This is a time when the developing brain is more sensitive and susceptible to trauma. Up to one in five people face a mental health problem before the age of 25, and 50% of these individuals were already grappling with symptoms before they turned 14.

There are many barriers that stop young people from seeking and receiving help, including shame, stigma, and a lack of understanding about mental health. One of the main dangers of a delayed diagnosis is that it can cause an individual's condition to worsen, and can even put some people at risk of suicide. It also exacerbates the stigmatization of young people who do receive a diagnosis or speak out about their mental health struggles.

Only people with mental health conditions need to look after their mental wellbeing

People often think of therapy as a means of fixing a mental health problem (via But it's not just for individuals who are already struggling. Therapy can provide a safe, non-judgemental space for you to explore and understand any challenging and confusing issues in your life. Addressing something that's bothering you while it's still small and manageable can prevent it from blowing up and becoming a more serious problem.

You don't have to wait until you're unwell to practice self-care and focus on your mental health, says the Mental Health Foundation. Many experts agree that prevention is better than cure. In other words, it's easier to stop a problem from escalating and spilling into different areas of your life than to deal with it after it's taken root.

Prevention can lower the risk of a mental disorder developing, according to a 2020 study published in International Journal of Mental Health Systems. Many psychological problems begin or worsen somewhere between childhood and young adulthood, when people are less confident about speaking out and getting help. For this reason, there's a lot of value in early screening and interventions that target young people and adolescents, say researchers.

Mental illness doesn't affect everyone

Some people still see mental health as something that doesn't apply to them (via However, mental illness is one of the main public health concerns around the world, reports a 2021 study published in BMC Psychiatry. Mental disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, cultural background, or economic status.

Depression is often regarded as a "Western problem" that's predominantly seen in people from high-income countries. However, research shows that depression is a global phenomenon that's just as prevalent in non-Western and low-income settings (via The British Journal of Psychiatry).

Another common stereotype is that eating disorders like anorexia only occur in white women (via Eating Disorders). This idea unavoidably lends itself to stigma, which is a key reason for why people don't talk about or report their symptoms. It has meant that many men and women from other races and ethnic groups with eating disorders often fall under the radar and fail to receive the help that they need. Researchers emphasize the importance of health campaigns that promote awareness and educate people about the prevalence of eating disorders among both sexes and across all races and ethnicities. Early identification and treatment of a mental health condition improves the likelihood of long-term recovery.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

People with psychiatric problems are violent

More than a third of people assume that individuals with psychiatric disorders are dangerous, per CrimeStoppers. However, data shows that people with mental health problems are no more likely to commit a violent act than someone without a mental disorder (via Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health). In fact, those with mental illness are usually the victims of violence themselves.

The myth that mental illness and violence are synonymous is perpetuated by the media. Stories that follow this narrative are often sensationalized, which deepens the stigma that people with psychiatric conditions are frequently faced with. Not only does this wear away at individuals' self-esteem and create feelings of shame and guilt, but it also stops people from seeking help and receiving treatment, say researchers (via BMC Psychiatry). It's also been shown to reduce the effectiveness of treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery.

The relationship between mental illness and violence is complex and driven by contextual factors (via Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health). For instance, people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are more likely to become violent if they have a coexisting substance abuse problem. The use of drugs and alcohol can trigger or worsen symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations, which usually underlies aggressive and violent behavior.

Does talking about suicide lead to suicidal behavior?

Suicide is a growing public health concern, notes the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It's estimated that around 1.3 million adults attempted suicide and 9.3 million had suicidal thoughts between 2019 and 2020.

Misconceptions about suicide can prevent people from speaking out or even recognizing that they're at risk (via NAMI). A commonly held misconception is that asking someone if they're feeling suicidal might put the idea of suicide into their head. However, research shows that being asked about suicidal thoughts doesn't spark suicidal ideation (via Psychological Medicine). Instead, there's evidence that talking about these thoughts can lessen their burden and lead to improvements in mental health.

"As a society, we should not be afraid to speak up about suicide," states NAMI, adding: "Talking about suicide not only reduces the stigma, but also allows individuals to seek help, rethink their opinions and share their story with others."

Still, it's important to be mindful of the language that we use when broaching the subject of suicide, avoiding terms like "commit suicide" and "successful suicide," per the Centre for Suicide Prevention. You can guide those in need of support towards helpful resources like the Samaritans Helpline or Support Line, and encourage them to speak to a doctor or therapist.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

People with eating disorders are always thin

A common myth about restrictive eating disorders like anorexia is that people with the illness look emaciated or have a severely low body weight (via the Journal of Eating Disorders). But many people affected by anorexia are of a normal weight and might even look healthy. Research shows that people who don't match this stereotype tend to have a longer duration of the illness and are less likely to receive inpatient care. This might be due to the fact that their disorder is minimized and overlooked by those around them.

This misconception can also influence how people battling anorexia perceive and treat themselves. For instance, many avoid seeking therapeutic support or fail to properly engage with and complete treatment, because they believe that they're not "sick enough." Some of these individuals may have been told either directly or indirectly by peers, family members, or even healthcare providers that they don't look unwell. This can bring up feelings of shame, embarrassment, and confusion.

Many mental health conditions are invisible in that we can't tell that a person is suffering just by looking at them. People may experience internal symptoms like emotional pain and cognitive dysfunctions without there being any outwardly detectable signs of their illness. "Non-stereotypical presentations of restrictive eating disorders are needed which challenge the myth that weight is the sole indicator of the presence or severity of illness," say researchers.

Mental illness is a consequence of bad parenting

Not all individuals who are struggling with their mental health come from chaotic and unstable homes, reports the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Many people with mental disorders also come from loving and supportive families (via Curationis).

Like many illnesses, mental health disorders can run in families. Research shows that poor parental mental health is a risk factor for the development of a mental health condition (via Society and Mental Health). In particular, severe and prolonged exposure to a parent's mental health issues as a child can increase an individual's chances of struggling with their mental health as an adult. This is because a psychological condition may cause parents to neglect or pay sporadic attention to their child's needs, which can have a negative impact.

Needless to say, parents with mental health conditions are entirely capable of good parenting, and mental illness isn't always passed down to offspring (via Frontiers in Psychiatry). The idea that mental disorders stem from bad parenting can be harmful, as it suggests that parents are single-handedly responsible for their child's mental and emotional problems. It overlooks the various possible ingredients that can add up to poor mental health beyond environmental factors, including genetic, biological, and social.

Mental health problems never fully go away

The theory that mental health conditions can be managed but never entirely go away is false, says the National Rehabilitation Information Center. People with mental health disorders can experience improvements over time, and many individuals recover completely. 

People can even recover from serious and persistent psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression (via CMAJ). A study published in Psychiatric Services found that one-third of people with a serious mental illness experienced remission for at least 12 months after treatment. "Mental illness is not always a lifelong or even a chronic condition," explain researchers (via CMAJ). The reality is that mental illness affects everyone differently. For some people, recovering from a disorder like addiction could be a long-term process and commitment. This might involve ongoing treatment, being mindful of triggers, and always having a support network to rely on. For others, the recovery journey might be short-lived.

Research shows that people generally have better recovery outcomes when they're part of a supportive community. Psychosocial interventions that promote autonomy and self-efficacy tend to be effective. Positive mental health recovery narratives can empower people, say researchers, particularly those with limited access to social and peer support networks (via the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry).