Damaging Myths About Mental Illness and What Can Be Done About Them

In our society and in many others around the world, myths about mental illnesses and those affected, persist. Everyone has unconsciously been exposed to news, media, and social stimuli that invoke negative images and myths about mental illness. However, there are ways to recognize and dispel these falsehoods whenever they come into the public or private consciousness. But first, we must recognize them when we see them.

Myth #1: Those with mental illnesses are violent, unpredictable, and dangerous.

According to countless studies and research paradigms, this is a blatant myth that is extremely harmful to those struggling with mental health issues. For example, every time a tragic, violent news story emerges, people immediately believe the culprit was “crazy,” “unhinged,” and “not right in the head.” In fact, in a 2006 study, 60 percent of Americans believed that those with schizophrenia were more likely to be violent and 32 percent thought those with major depression had a higher likelihood. This is unfortunate since the reverse is true. The majority of people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to severe mental illness. Ironically, those with mental illnesses are actually ten times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators (Mortier, 2018).

Studies show that mass violence is far more likely to be perpetrated by those with a history of criminal records, past instances of aggression like domestic violence, narcissistic personalities, sociopathic levels of non-empathy, childhood adversities, and desperate circumstances. None of those factors pertain to mental health diagnoses.

With a study done in Pittsburgh, researchers found that after controlling for the types of perpetrators of crime, the location of the neighborhood in question held more risk than whether or not an offender had a mental health diagnosis. Family history, personal stressors, substance use, and socioeconomic factors play a far greater role in widespread violence (2011).

Myth #2: Mental illness is caused by weakness of character.

Nothing could be further from the truth from this damaging misconception.

Unfortunately, there are many who still doubt the severity of mental illness and make attributions of laziness, weakness, and attention-seeking. Mental illnesses are real ailments that are just as legitimate as any physical disease. Depression is no more a sign of weakness than cancer. Arguably, those with mental illnesses have a strong, resilient strength of character because of having to work twice as hard as the general population to make it through life. A weakness of character is not a precursor to mental illnesses but rather these conditions are caused by a mixture of biological, psychological, and social factors as found in the biopsychosocial model. Genetics, chronic illnesses, brain chemistry, life experiences, trauma, social standing, and many other factors contribute to the likelihood of diagnoses.

Nowhere has research dictated that mental illnesses occur from “not trying hard enough” in life. In fact, many of history’s most influential people have had diagnosable mental illnesses like JK Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, and many others (Benjamin, 2012). Many with mental illnesses have contributed greatly to society and have developed values, skills, and life lessons that the general population has not.

Myth #3: Recovery isn’t very likely for those with severe mental illness.

While it can be a long, difficult road, recovery is very possible. However, this myth born of hopelessness can negatively affect those with these conditions as well as their loved ones. The good news is that there are more treatments and resources available today than ever before. Various therapeutic modalities, medications, and educational opportunities for health professionals are growing every day. According to various studies, 85% of severely depressed and suicidal patients responded positively to electro-convulsive therapy. For those with schizophrenia, 50% showed improvement over a 10 year period and 25% showed substantial improvement. In comparison to other brain and neurodegenerative disorders, mental disorders showed a 75% higher improvement rate for those affected.

In addition, several kinds of psychotherapies have shown high efficiencies for depression and anxiety disorders. For example, 70% of individuals showed improvement after undergoing cognitive therapy and 50% of people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder improved following exposure therapy (Insel, 2015). These outcomes are only the tip of the iceberg of all successful treatments that have been attempted.

While it is no easy feat to dispel harmful myths, there are some simple steps that can be taken to improve education and open people’s minds to the facts. Firstly, one valuable way would be to do your own research about statistics and the likelihood of those with mental illnesses being perpetrators of violence. The numbers simply do not add up. Have open dialogues with people you know who are affected by mental illness. Chances are, they are just as empathetic and peace-loving as anyone else. Learn about the life stories of those who have been affected by mental illnesses. See their resilience and how much they’ve had to overcome in their lives. Read about famous people who have had mental health struggles. If your mental health is strong, imagine what it would be like to struggle with it every day. When overwhelmed with the uphill battle of recovery, learn about efficient treatments, and encourage your loved one to receive help. With every mind that opens, the stigma will lose one more ounce of its power.


(2011). Mental Illness and Violence. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/mental-illness-and-violence Benjamin, Kathy. (2012). 11 Historical Geniuses and Their Possible Mental Disorders. Retrieved from:

http://mentalfloss.com/article/12500/11-historical-geniuses-and-their-possible-mental-dis orders

Insel, Thomas. (2015). Mental Health Awareness Month: By the Numbers. Retrieved from:

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2015/mental-health-awaren ess-month-by-the-numbers.shtml

Mortier, Christine. (2018). Debunking the Myth of Violence and Mental Illness. Retrieved from: https://afsp.org/debunking-the-myth-of-violence-and-mental-illness/

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