When you think of the term mental illness, what images come to mind?  An asylum patient in a straitjacket, like a character in a horror film?  Or maybe you picture a cold, calculating psychopath like Hannibal Lecter.

In reality, mental illness comes in an incredible variety of shapes and sizes.  The American Psychiatric Association’s manual of mental disorders lists over 150 specific mental diagnoses, ranging from trauma-related disorders such as PTSD to personality-related diagnoses like narcissistic personality disorder.  Even fairly common emotional conditions stemming from external situations, such as depression caused by bereavement, might warrant a mental health diagnosis.

Mental health concerns are more widespread than you might think.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, roughly 10 million Americans experience a serious mental illness each year, and an additional 34 million experience a lower-grade mental illness every year.[1]

Unfortunately, less than half of those with a mental health concern will receive treatment for their condition.  One important factor contributing to this issue is the fact that mental illness still carries a negative stigma and is still less socially acceptable in our modern society than it could be.  People are far less likely to seek out treatment if they view their condition as shameful and embarrassing.

Perhaps the biggest misconception contributing to this lack of acceptance is the view that mental health conditions are set in stone and stem from underlying character flaws.  The irony is that this view is exactly what the term “mental illness” was intended to prevent.  “Mental illness” is meant to imply that mental health conditions are entirely treatable and even curable, like a common cold or virus.

For many mental health conditions, it is indeed true that they are treatable.  Mood-related conditions, such as depression and anxiety, can be dramatically impacted or even alleviated by using state-of-the-art techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy or through a combination of therapy and psychiatric treatment.

These common misperceptions about mental illness can discourage people from seeking out treatment, even though they might benefit from it.  There is an even more insidious implication of these widely held views, however.  Over the past 20 years, the pioneering work of psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues has shown that people’s views about whether or not something is fixed or changeable can become self-fulfilling.  So if you think that a mental illness cannot be changed, then this mindset can prevent you from taking steps to address it.  If you believe that a mental illness can change, however, then your belief will empower you to take actions that can make these changes a reality.

So the next time you think that you or someone in your life might have a mental health condition, take a moment to reflect on your own underlying assumptions about mental illness.  While our modern society is much more accepting of mental illness than previous eras, there are still many harmful misconceptions about mental illness that remain pervasive.  If we work to challenge these misconceptions and foster a more rational, accepting view of mental illness, it would help a great number of people to seek out the care that would make their lives dramatically better.



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