Updated January 2023
What's the biggest barrier to understanding, compassion, and progress on any issue? Lack of awareness, misinformation, and a closed mind.
Nowhere is this more true (and more damaging) than in the domain of mental illness.
Mental illness is one of the most misunderstood issues on the planet. And despite recent, major pushes to generate awareness and reduce stigma, mental health issues remain shrouded in secrecy, shame, and confusion.
Ironically, mental illness touches every one of us. In any given year, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience a mental health problem. And by age 40, half of the population will have—or have had—a mental illness (Canadian Mental Health Association).
So why is it so hard for many people to grasp the realities of mental illness? False beliefs and lack of community mental health training are the major culprits.
Let's take a look at five of the most persistent and toxic mental health myths still going strong today.
Myth #1: Mental illnesses are all "kind of the same"
We often talk about mental illness as if it were a single, general condition. But the truth is, there are numerous distinct forms of mental illness, each with their own causes, symptoms, and treatment strategies.
Some of the most common forms of mental illness include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
Treatments range from cognitive behaviour therapy, to medication, to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), to psychotherapy.
☑️ FACT CHECK: Mental illness is a broad category that includes many different mental health conditions. People who take quality mental health training get a clear overview of the most common conditions, related symptoms, and the latest research on causes and treatments.
This education is crucial for knowing how to effectively assess and work with people suffering from different kinds of mental illness.
Myth #2: Mental illness Affects mostly adults
There is a common misconception that mental illness develops in older adults as a result of harrowing life experiences—like a traumatic break-up, job loss, or death of a loved one.
It's true that traumatizing events can sometimes trigger illnesses like depression, but these experiences are not limited to older people.
In fact, half of all mental illnesses show their first symptoms before the age of 14, and three-quarters of all mental health disorders begin before age 24.
One of the biggest groups in society to suffer from depression? Adolescents. Some of the most recent stats show that 20 per cent of all teens experience depression. After accidents, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24.
A number of factors contribute to high rates of depression in young people.
Abused, neglected, and chronically ill teens are especially at risk. And genetics plays a key role.
About 20 to 50 per cent of depressed young people have a family member who suffers from depression or another mental illness.
☑️ FACT CHECK: Rates of depression and suicide are rising among teens. Only a small fraction get the treatment needed to address the condition and enter into recovery.
Myth #3: People with mental illness are often violent
Humans tend to fear, socially exclude, and stigmatize what they don't understand. So it's no surprise that people with mental illness are often seen as a threat to public safety.
And while there are situations where poor mental health can be a factor in volatile and aggressive behaviour, this is not the norm. In many cases, those situations are made worse by people who simply don't know how to respond to someone with a mental illness.
The Canadian Mental Health Association reminds us that people who experience mental health issues are far more likely to become victims of violence than perpetrate violent acts.
☑️ FACT CHECK: Several studies have shown that those with mental illness make up a very small proportion of violent offenders. In fact, victimization and violence toward mentally ill people plays a major role in worsening their symptoms and delaying recovery.
Myth #4: People with mental health issues can't work a regular job
This myth is particularly toxic because it suggests that people with mental illness can't really function in society. They can't hold down a job, shouldn't be trusted with responsibility, and will never live full lives.
What's more, this myth leads to discrimination, where people with perceived or diagnosed mental illness are denied jobs—a clear violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which promises equal and fair treatment, regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, or mental or physical disability.
Employers are afraid that workers with mental illness will need extra time off, won't fit in with the rest of the team, and won't cope well with pressure.
And the stigmatization of mental illness in the workplace has other dangerous consequences beyond discriminatory hiring policies.
According to the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 75 per cent of people would hesitate to tell their current employer they are suffering from poor mental health. They fear a loss of confidence in their abilities, and ultimately, being fired.
☑️ FACT CHECK: Many people with mental illness are completely capable of working regular jobs. What's missing is community mental health training for employers to help them properly accommodate people with specific mental health needs.
Myth #5: mental illness is caused by personal weakness
This is perhaps the most pervasive and long-lasting mental health myth. It's based on the idea that "weak" people or those with less willpower are particularly vulnerable to mental health disorders.
Despite global mental health awareness campaigns dedicated to debunking this myth, it still lives on, even among the younger generation.
A recent survey by Kaiser Permanente revealed that the majority of Americans are still holding on to some very misguided notions about mental health. The national poll shows that more than half of all respondents believe depression is caused in some part by a personal weakness or failing.
And shockingly, 24 per cent of millennials agreed that most people with a mental health condition can get well on their own, without professional help. They just need stronger willpower.
It is precisely this kind of misinformation that links poor mental health with personal failure—perpetuating stigma, secrecy, and reluctance to seek treatment.
☑️ FACT CHECK: Mental illness has no relationship whatsoever to weakness. Mental health disorders are linked to family health history, traumatic events, and chemical imbalances.
And it's crucial to know that treatment does work. For example, more than 80% of people treated for depression improve, and treatment for panic disorders has up to a 90% success rate.
community Mental health training is more important than ever
It's not an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. All around the globe, we are seeing the disastrous effects of poor mental health awareness, discrimination, and lack of access to effective treatment.
Only quality education, and a major shift in perception around this issue, will create positive change. It all starts with community mental health training and better tools for professionals who work in community-serving roles.
Are you a health care professional? Do you work in social services, law enforcement, education, or a similar public-facing role? Even basic mental health course can significantly improve the way you interact with, assess, and work with people dealing with mental illness.
Click below to explore the Community Mental Health & Addictions certificate offered by Kompass Professional Development.
This training is taught by highly experienced mental health professionals and is delivered online for maximum flexibility.