Our behavioral health expert debunks some myths about mental illness and provides useful information on where to find support and treatment.
By Kristen Davis-Coelho, PhD, BA, MA, administrator of the Behavioral Health and Addiction Institute at Renown Health
Most of us know someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or another mental health challenge. Maybe you’ve personally battled mental health issues.
What is ‘Mental Illness?’
The term “mental illness” can be controversial. It’s used to refer to a range of experiences, from brief but significant symptoms to chronic, disabling conditions. Many factors can contribute to the development of mental illness, including biological and genetic factors, life experiences, trauma and behavioral or thinking patterns.
Most of us have found ourselves struggling to cope at some point in our lives. So when does an experience cross the line into a diagnosable mental health disorder? The answer is when it causes significant distress or impairs functioning.
For example, many people are worriers. But if an individual is so overwhelmed with anxiety that they’re only getting two hours of sleep each night, or risk losing their job because they can’t focus at work, the condition may qualify as a disorder.
Living with Mental Illness
In any given year, approximately 18 percent of adults meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. Of those, about 9 percent are considered to be seriously mentally ill, which means the severity of their symptoms is disabling, as with schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder.
Mental health struggles are surprisingly common among children — nearly 20 percent of children experience a diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year, the most prevalent of which is anxiety. Remember: To be considered a disorder the experience must cause significant distress for the child or interfere with their ability to function within their family, at school or with peers.
Despite popular belief, the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness are not violent. Only a very small proportion of violent acts — 3 to 5 percent — can be attributed to people with a mental illness. In fact, people with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victims of violence — rather than the perpetrators.
Certain factors increase the likelihood that any individual, whether they have mental illness or not, will behave violently, including substance abuse, past history of violence, brain injury from trauma, prenatal exposure or dementia. Effective treatment is critical to reduce violence in people who are at risk.
Prognosis and Treatment
The vast majority of individuals who receive appropriate treatment improve. For many people, however, mental illness is best thought of as a chronic health condition, similar to asthma, diabetes or cardiovascular disease — it can be treated, but must also be monitored and managed.
For someone who has never experienced a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, it’s easy to view these conditions as something the person can simply “snap out of.” However, telling someone with clinical depression to just “think positive” is like telling a diabetic to just start producing more insulin.
It’s critical to not reinforce the stigma that already surrounds mental illness. Ignoring someone’s struggle, encouraging them to pretend that everything is okay, or passing it off as a phase isn’t helpful. If you noticed someone you cared about was having trouble breathing, you’d ask if they were OK, suggest they see a doctor and offer help. Similarly, if someone is struggling with depression, anxiety or more serious symptoms, gently but directly bring up your concerns and offer support.
Recovery from mental illness isn’t about the absence of stress, symptoms or dysfunction. It’s about an individual’s ability to experience their full potential, contribute to their community and live a life full of meaning, regardless of any mental health struggle they may be experiencing.
Visit the Lifestyle page at BestMedicineNews.org to learn more about mental health and well-being.
This article also appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source March 25.