What Mental Illness is Not

Last month, I did a post to try to raise some awareness about how prevalent mental illness is. I was talking about legitimate mental illness. One of my biggest frustrations as a mental health professional is that we seem to simultaneously misunderstand and stigmatize folks with actual mental health concerns, while we throw around terms like “mentally ill” and “crazy” in situations that absolutely do not fit! I know that most of this is about our lack of education and lack of awareness, so I try to correct these things whenever I can. So, here are some things that mental illness is not:

Mental Illness is not Violence: Often, when someone commits a crime that we don’t understand, our first inclination is to say that they are mentally ill. That’s a huge cop out. Statistics indicate that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims or violent crimes than to be perpetrators of those crimes. In addition, there is much that can be categorized of mental illness which does not strip people of their ability to distinguish between right and wrong or suddenly make them violent criminals. (I’ll save you a long discussion on insanity pleas in the legal system)

For me, it’s an insult to those who have lived experience with mental illness to simply categorize them in the same group with people who we don’t understand, despise, or want to go away because their actions sicken us. This is not to say that those folks might not be dealing with a mental illness; maybe they are. That doesn’t mean the mental illness CAUSED the crime or problematic behavior (Check out this article if you don’t believe me: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/04/mental-illness-crime.aspx).

Mental Illness is not Bad Behavior: 99% the time, we can be held responsible for our actions, from criminal activity to simply acting out. People with lived experience with mental illness fight every day to manage their symptoms and function well. Sometimes, the folks who are most disruptive in our work and community environments are simply exhibiting bad behavior. Either they don’t care about or don’t feel subject to the consequences of their actions. Maybe they are so inwardly focused that they don’t see the impact of their actions on others. There are lots of possible reasons, many of which have nothing to do with a diagnosable condition.

Mental Illness is not a Death Sentence:  There is a really wide range of what can be diagnosed as a mental health condition, from a Major Depressive Episode, all the way to Schizophrenia. In very few cases does a diagnosis of a mental health condition mean that people’s lives will be negatively impacted forever. In many cases, the person may have a chronic condition that requires monitoring, support, intervention, and maybe medication. In those cases, with the appropriator treatment, people are able to lead normal, full lives. In other cases, the condition is temporary and goes away with treatment (or sometimes on its own) and people don’t feel much effect (if any) after the episode has passed. One of the most important things you should knows is that people’s experience with mental illness varies just like our heights, weights, and personalities. Rather than assuming you know someone’s experience because they have a diagnosis, it makes more sense to simply try to get to know them or ask if appropriate.

Mental Illness is not a sign of Personal Weakness Some of the strongest people I have ever met have been my clients. Sometimes people think that if others will just “change the way they think” or “try to see things positively” they could just wipe out their symptoms. It’s really not that simple. Often, mental illness is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain that people have absolutely no control over— they can’t just change their minds. I’m sure if that was easy, they would have done it already! Other times, people are having reactions to past life circumstances that have led to trouble figuring out  what to do in the present. “Strong” people are not immune from mental illness and “weak” people are not prone to it. It happens to everyone, even those of us who seem to have it together.

What I hope you’ll take away from this, is simply to be careful with how we attempt to categorize and talk about mental illness. I guarantee that you know someone impacted by a mental illness- whether you know it or not. The bottom line is that above all, these folks deserve your respect and support. Thank you for reading, and make Well Choices!

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