Myths and prejudices
Unlike physical illnesses, mental illnesses are still subject to prejudice. For example, people may believe that all people with mental illness are dangerous, when this is far from the case. These prejudices come from ignorance or a misunderstanding of reality. Yet, mental illness is increasingly common in our society. One in five people (20%) is afflicted by some form of mental illness. The most common illnesses include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe and persistent depression, borderline personality disorder and anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.
You may also harbor certain prejudices. That’s why it’s important to get to the bottom of your fears and determine whether they are justified. For example, you may think that you are responsible for your loved one’s illness or that it would be dangerous to leave them alone, etc. By letting go of your prejudices, you will be able to adjust the way you look at your loved one and the support you can give them. You will also be more comfortable raising awareness and understanding of the issues your loved one and your family are experiencing.
You can be part of the solution to change the way people perceive those with mental illness, break down taboos and reduce the stigma.
The causes of mental illness
In simple terms, mental illnesses are related to disturbances in brain chemistry and thinking, which can be triggered by life events and difficulties. Genetically, you don’t inherit a mental illness, you only inherit the tendency to develop it.
Several factors can influence the development of a mental illness. For example, on a biological level, factors may include prenatal harm, physical trauma, infections and chemical imbalances in the brain. In terms of psychological and social factors, elements such as lack of social support, childhood abuse, family violence, unemployment and major life changes can all influence the onset of the disease.
Some myths about mental illness
Here are some myths about mental illness. We’re sure you’ve heard others as well. Perhaps you even share some of these false beliefs.
1. People with mental illness are all the same.
They are not a single group with unified needs. The extent of their illness, as well as the support and treatment they have received, shapes how they experience the illness and its impact on their lives.
2. Mental illness is a sign of alienation and dangerousness.
Contrary to popular belief, very few people with mental illness are a danger to others, but fear, social discomfort, misunderstanding and feelings of guilt often haunt those close to a person with mental illness.
3. People with mental illness are unable to manage their lives.
Individuals have the ability to take control of their lives and actively participate in their treatment. Depending on their capabilities, they should be empowered to make choices and actively participate in decisions that affect them.
4. It’s the people with the illness who need help, not their families.
A recent study found that the proportion of families experiencing high levels of emotional distress due to mental illness is three times greater than that of the general population. Loved ones therefore need a range of services to enable them to make the most of their potential. (Provencher, Perreault, Saint-Onge & Vandal, 2001)
5. Only adults suffer from mental illness.
Studies show that 15% of children and young people suffer from mental health problems. In Quebec, this represents over 230,000 children and young people. Due to the complexity of making a diagnosis in individuals who are not yet fully developed, special emphasis should be placed on assessment services providing multidisciplinary expertise.
6. My brother has a mental illness. So, I’m better off not having children to avoid the worst-case scenario.
The sibling relationship is very diverse in terms of shared genetic heritage. While we know for sure that we share 50% of our genetic heritage (i.e., 50% similarity) with each of our parents, we cannot know what we share with our brother or sister. Theoretically, the possibilities range from 0% to 100%. In other words, genetically we can be completely identical or different.
7. If I pull away from my sister, it is a sign that I am abandoning her, that I no longer care about her.
Distancing oneself is not synonymous with abandonment or disinterest. Just because we distance ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t care about our sibling, or that we aren’t concerned about their suffering. Distance is not required for self-freedom, but it is sometimes the only way to refocus and regain our ability to think and reflect.
8. It is abnormal for me to feel jealous of my sister who is mentally ill.
Siblings are first impacted by their parents’ suffering and confusion.
If they do not understand what is happening, they may stigmatize feelings of guilt. “It’s my fault that my parents are sad.” We may also feel guilty and as if we have not done enough for our sibling because we, ourselves, are well. This is compounded by feelings of abandonment, shame, aggression towards our parents’ overprotectiveness, jealousy and the guilt that follows.
9. My sister has a mental illness, but I’m the one who’s exhausted. It’s not normal.
The majority of studies show that having a loved one with a mental illness has negative effects on physical health, especially in the case of caring for that person. An internal Réseau Avant de Craquer study reported that 82% of families say they are exhausted. Additionally, recent research shows that emotional distress among family members is three times higher than in the general population (60% vs. 20%).
10. Family gatherings are no longer possible.
Family gatherings can sometimes lead to feelings of vulnerability. Work together to find compromises that address the desires and fears of all parties. This is an exercise in tolerance and respect for everyone’s boundaries, and it reduces tension created by fear of the unknown and the unpredictable.
11. Parents are detrimental to the recovery process of a child with a mental illness.
Studies agree on the importance of family support, and numerous studies have shown that family members play key roles in supporting people with mental health problems. (Fisher, Benson & Tessler, 1990)
12. The public sector is the only provider of professional mental health services.
Community organizations have developed recognized expertise and leadership. Quebec and France have been pioneers in supporting organizations that provide support to families and friends of people with mental illness.
Things to remember
Talking about mental health is increasingly common. One in five people is afflicted with some form of mental illness. However, there are still many myths and prejudices. The best way to change things is through information and awareness.
Development of a mental illness is rarely explained by a single factor. There are biological and psychological factors that influence the onset of illness.
You can be part of the solution. Get involved and help change the way people think.