“Isn’t This Crazy?”: Confronting Misconceptions about Mental Illness

Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, chances are good that you came to this blog today with at least a vague idea of what mental illness is and what it means when you have one; people tend to pick up on certain things over the course of a lifetime even without learning about them explicitly. And if you’re like I was when I was much, much younger, the picture of mental illness you already have in your mind is an altogether ugly, unsavory, and frightening one. Society as a larger unit tends to grossly misunderstand and misrepresent mental illness, such that the reality of mental illness is often so different from its representation in books, television, and movies that it is unrecognizable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it – and, worse yet, to those who are experiencing it. In other words, mentally ill people in real life are so unlike mentally ill people on TV that you can be mentally ill and not even know it.

Thanks to the fact that the socially-taboo nature of the condition prevents open, honest discussion, misconceptions about mental illness abound. Some of the most common misconceptions also carry the risk of causing great harm to those of us who actually live with mental illness. In the hope of both protecting you from these misconceptions and arming you against people who possess them, I’d like to confront the ones that have harmed me and present the truth of the matter.

Misconception #1: “There’s nothing wrong with you; every teenager feels this emotional.”

This one is hard to write about without getting angry, because it held me back from getting treatment for years. Parents, if you’re reading this, your teenager knows when something is wrong with him or her. Teenagers, even under the influence of raging hormones and rapidly intensifying social pressures, can tell the difference between a bad day and a black hole. To any teenage readers: please hang in there and check back later for a post detailing what you can do to get yourself help if no one is taking you seriously. Your teenage years should not consist of struggling to get through each day.

Misconception #2:  “Mental illness” isn’t real. People use it to get attention or to escape blame after misbehaving.

Yowch! This one leaves a bruise. Mental illness most definitely is real. Like diabetes signifies that the pancreas is failing to produce adequate insulin, diseases like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are the result of a chemical deficit in the brain. Scientists haven’t pinpointed the exact cause of mental illness yet – medical technology simply isn’t advanced enough – but they’re getting closer every day, and for now they know more than enough to verify that mental illness is definitely a real condition caused by something going wrong within the brain. (It’s also important to note that “something going wrong within the brain” is very different than “something the person did on purpose to get attention, get out of trouble, and/or make themselves into an unnecessary burden on everyone around.”) As for escaping blame: Yes, I suppose it’s true that someone could conceivably shoplift from a store, post naked pictures of himself or herself online, and/or cheat on his or her significant other with not one but three other people and then claim to have been affected with bipolar disorder, but it’s much more likely that that person became legitimately affected with bipolar disorder before doing all that other stuff – much the same way that the handful of people who abuse the welfare system make it harder and more shameful for single working mothers, college students, and underemployed persons to benefit from it.

Misconception #3: People who claim to be depressed or mentally ill just need to try harder to get over it. After all, “pain is weakness leaving the body.” Anyone worth anything can pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps.

Oooooooh, this one burns me up. Going through emotional trauma does not mean that you are somehow morphing into a superhero, just like being overwhelmed by emotional trauma does not mean your system was too “weak” to handle the transformation. Listen to the words that are coming out of my mouth: my brain is broken and science does not know how to fix it yet. If you fell down a flight of stairs and broke your leg in half, would you just “try harder” to get up and walk? No! You’d call a freaking ambulance, you idiot! It’s the same thing. Friends, if someone has lobbied this gem at you, I know they probably meant well and had no idea they sounded like a mouth-breathing moron, but for the love of hot dogs, don’t listen to them! When you’re mentally ill, all you do is try; try to get out of bed in the morning, try not to cry into your cereal, try to make it through the day without accidentally embarrassing yourself, try to interact normally with other people, try to pay attention, try to suppress all your weird compulsions…. With all the stuff you’re already trying to do, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is asking a little too much.

“But Sarah, I heard a story in church/on the news/from a motivational speaker about a guy who lived with depression for years and then cured himself by being tough and riding it out/keeping a daily gratitude journal/looking on the bright side of things.”

Yes, I heard it too, and I’m here to tell you it means nothing as far as your own struggle is concerned, and here’s why. In Nova Scotia in 1993, a man named Gregg Ernst shattered the world’s record for heaviest weight lifted by hoisting into the air a platform holding two cars and their drivers. The platform weighed over 5,000 pounds. Obviously this is an amazing feat, one that Ernst identified as a goal early on and spent his lifetime training for. Okay, so picture a guy about your age who goes to the gym five days a week and can crush a beer can by flexing his bicep. Would you call him “weak” to his face? Would you think he was less of an athlete because he can’t also lift two cars and their drivers? Because he didn’t decide at a young age that he was going to one day physically pick up two automobiles and immediately start training to do that very thing? What if just managing to work out every day is a big triumph for him because he was in a car accident as a kid that left him in leg braces for years, or because he was born with multiple sclerosis? Are you going to think this guy is spiritually weak because he can’t muster enough “willpower” to lift those two cars?

When we’re kids, we don’t stop and think, “Gee, one day I might develop a mental illness. I’d better start training my mind to get over being depressed!” And not all of us have the psychological and spiritual resources to just “will” our way out of depression; some of us, for example, may have other serious health issues to cope with, may be survivors of an extraordinarily difficult upbringing, or may simply be trying to deal with a lot of stressful life events occurring all at once. If you wouldn’t expect our friend the Beer Can Guy to go around picking up cars like Godzilla, then you shouldn’t also expect yourself to somehow magically have the “inner strength” to overcome mental illness on your own. You got out of bed this morning. There’s proof of inner strength.

Misconception #4: Mentally ill people are dangerous to be around.

The image of mental illness most people have in their heads, thanks to Hollywood, is that of a raving lunatic, wielding a chainsaw and chasing a scantily clad teenager down the road while wearing the face of his last victim. Oh, did I mention he has tea parties in the basement with his mother’s corpse and once made a whole suit out of human skin? You get the idea. Yeah, we’re so obviously not like that at all. Even those of us with anger issues (due to medication side effects or the natural effects of a mood disorder, mind you, not due to a flaw in moral character – more on that in a minute) aren’t likely to suddenly break out in murder, especially if we’re aware of the issue; if that’s the case, it’s highly likely that we’re better equipped to keep an eye on our temper than “normal” folks.

Misconception #5: Mental illness makes you a special butterfly, and psychiatric medication is poison that will turn you into a joyless robot.

You can (mostly) thank Hollywood for this one, too. Mental illness is often portrayed as the driving force behind a character’s genius/creativity/passion, the spark that makes them interesting and unique. But it’s not just movies and television reinforcing this trope; historians and biographers have attributed the greatness of people like Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, and Abraham Lincoln to their mental illnesses. And yes, it’s unfortunately true that enhanced creativity, increased energy, and exceptional lucidity of thought are all symptoms of mania, the “upswing” of bipolar disorder; it’s also unfortunately true that once a person undergoes effective treatment for the negative aspects of bipolar disorder, they often find that the positive aspects have been blunted, rendering them less creative and energetic than before. I took one medication for a while shortly after being diagnosed as bipolar that made me feel like a cardboard cutout of a person, all flat and two-dimensional, existing in a colorless world like Dorothy before she visits the Land of Oz. But you know what? I asked for a different medication.

And here I am now, still special, still unique, only now I don’t have to slog through months of bleak wintery depression before waking up one morning with a blinding burst of energy and creativity; instead, now I sit down at my laptop and say to myself, “Write.” And then I pound keys and make words come out. The thing about creativity is, if everybody waited until they felt “inspired” before attempting to create something, authors would literally starve to death in the streets after being kicked out of their apartments for not paying rent. TV shows would go on hiatus for years at a time while the actors and set designers waited to hear “the call of the Muse.” Nobody would ever be able to get any advertising done for their products, and we’d have a lot fewer inventions making our lives easier.

Misconception #6: Mental illness means you’re a bad person with a weak moral character.

Oh Lord. Really? You think I got up this morning and decided ahead of time that it might be a good idea to burst into tears in the middle of my family reunion? Or that I thought it might be really funny to flake out on the job interview a friend went to the trouble of setting up for me in addition to skipping all of my classes this week? My husband likes to say, “There are no good people and there are no bad people; there’s just people.” People with mental illness have a lot going on in their heads, and very little of it has to do with hurting someone else’s feelings. About seven years ago I forgot my husband’s birthday because at that point in time, I was having trouble keeping track of what month it was. And two years ago I was so stressed out by grad school that my own mother’s birthday came and went without so much as an “I love you, Mom.” In neither situation was I intentionally being selfish; self-centered, possibly, but when you’re suffering intensely it’s very easy to get trapped in what I like to call “the awful bubble.” Bottom line: Anyone can do bad things, even “normal” people, and doing a bad thing doesn’t automatically make you a bad person.

Have you encountered any damaging misconceptions that you’d like me to add to the list? Leave me a comment about them!

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