Mental health is what we refer to when we are describing our emotions and psychological wellbeing and it encompasses everything from happiness and joy to despair and numbness. Even with the great progress that has been made in recent years, there is still a stigma surrounding mental illness.
This stigma is a dangerous misconception propagated by many myths. Myths that have prevented sufferers from asking for help from the people around them, worried about what family, friends and employers might think. It has caused many to delay seeking help and can leaving them struggling in silence, isolated.
In the last few years, many high profile people from many walks of life have bravely stepped forward to talk about challenges with their mental health. It’s been refreshing that the Royal Family have started to champion mental health causes, given both their highly visible profile and the family’s historical stoicism on the subject. We can only admire Prince Harry openly discussing the counselling he needed to deal with the anger and anxiety that he felt after the death of his mother. As well as the fantastic work the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are doing spearheading the Heads Together initiative, their aim is to reduce the stigma of mental ill health and to raise funds for projects that will directly support those that are affected. I can’t think of a better way they could have honoured their mother’s memory.
It can be difficult to make sense of our own mental health, as often moods fluctuate in response to our environment. How many people go to work each day and feel they are ok, only to get home and realise that maybe things aren’t ok but it’s the first chance they’ve had time to stop and feel it. When someone suffers a loss it’s normal to experience a range of emotions but what are the indicators that might suggest they need help to get through those emotions? It is usually through interactions with others that we begin to form an opinion around our own mental health and it can be incredibly helpful to bounce those worries off another person. Often such conversations include, “that happened to me too” which can be helpful if you are worried about being odd or different.
Tis but a Scratch
We are all much better at understanding and talking about our physical health. It’s much easier to quantify physical malady’s, i.e. a broken leg, a rash, a cold. Mental health issues, on the other hand, can be far less tangible, at times we have all been guilty of “soldiering on”, especially in face of a crisis. The “stiff upper lip” has been ingrained into the British psyche, fantastically lampooned in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the Knight exclaiming “Tis but a scratch!” after losing an arm! Absurd but at the same time sadly true of how many of us deal with our mental health.
If you broke your leg, you would try to avoid activities that might make it worse, you wouldn’t be back playing football on Sunday. No one would expect you to just “walk it off”. Everyone would recognise how debilitating and painful it is and the obvious fact it will take time to heal. Unfortunately, when it comes to mental illness the same rules don’t apply, we’ll exclaim “tis but a scratch” when in fact we are rocked to the core and we will try to “walk it off”, rather than recognise it can take time to heal.
Mental Health Myths
There are many other myths that still continue to circulate about mental health, let’s take a closer look at some of them:
Myth #1 – Mental illness is a sign of weakness
Mental ill health is often experienced as a result of unhelpful stimuli – social, environmental, historical and biological factors (genes, physical illness, accidents or brain chemistry) are all known to contribute. The more contributing negative factors that you experience, the greater the risk that you could be affected by mental ill health. This can happen to anyone from any background at any point in their life and at some point or another 1 in 4 of us will experience mental ill health. The wrong pressure at the wrong time can break any part of us be it your femur, your heart, your brain or your mind, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s simply that we are mortal and ultimately have limits both physical and mental.
Myth #2 – A person can feel better if they want to
It is true that there are things we can all do to improve our mental health such as regular exercise, remaining sociable, mindfulness and keeping to a consistent routine. These things are not always enough to support mental health especially if there are underlying environmental issues or biological imbalances. So just like a plastered broken leg (sorry to labour the analogy) we all need external support sometimes to aid in our healing.
Myth #3 – People with Mental Illness are violent and unpredictable
People that are struggling with mental illness are no more likely to be violent or unpredictable than anyone else. It might make for a good film but I’m afraid Hollywood has done us no favours when it comes to the realities of mental illness. The unfortunate truth is that 1 in 10 people that are struggling with mental ill health are more likely to be the victims of violent behaviour.
Myth #4 – Therapy and self-help are a waste of time – I can just take a pill
Taking a pill can even out biological chemistry for as long as you take them, but even pills are more successful when used in conjunction with therapy or self-help strategies. The worse effects of a broken leg might be reduced by taking painkillers but it won’t help to support the growth that is needed to repair the break and strengthen the leg. Similarly, a pill can help a person manage the symptoms of mental ill health, but if you don’t make the changes in your life that are needed, the underlying issue is likely to still be there.
Myth #5 – People with Mental Illness can’t work
It can be difficult to stay in work if you are having a mental health crisis, however, there are millions of people out there that are in employment and managing their mental ill health. Statistically, there is a good chance that you work beside someone struggling with mental health every day. it’s not as obvious as someone hobbling around with a full leg cast. Prince Harry has talked at length about how he was working whilst struggling with mental health. Personally, I’ve seen people struggling through terrible loss who somehow get through their 9 to 5, simply “soldiering on”, with work colleagues none the wiser.
Myth #6 – Talking to a Counsellor is like talking to a friend
Counsellors undertake many years of training in order to offer a therapeutic relationship that can support a person to heal. The relationship can feel like you are talking to a good friend, someone you can trust but on closer inspection even though your counsellor should be ‘real’ they shouldn’t be self-disclosing personal details about themselves as this can impact on the therapeutic process. This is different from friends or family that may give you advice or make judgements, you might call them up late at night because you want to chat or catch them on social media. Counsellors are expected to hold professional boundaries around client contact, confidentiality and working ethically with people.
Myth #7 – Talking about mental ill health will make it worse
This is often a worry for some people, especially if everything has been bottled up for some time, it can be scary to begin to let little bits out. A bit like a shaken bottle of coke, it’s a worry to let the lid off, even a little bit, in case you can’t stop the rest getting out. However, statistics show that one of the main contributing factors that can lead to suicide is feeling alone and isolated, so any opportunity to be listened to and understood can be beneficial.
Myth #8 – Medication will turn me into a zombie
Everyone is unique and medication can impact people in different ways. The most important thing is to keep a good line of communication open with your GP. If you don’t like how you are feeling, talk to your GP because there are many similar drugs out there that can work in the same way but may feel different for you.
Myth #9 – People self-harm for attention
Actually, most people that self-harm will do it quietly in hidden ways. Self-harming for many people is a way of coping with overwhelming emotions and distress. Self-harming might take the form of cutting, scratching, burning, overeating, and undereating or over-exercising. People that self-harm need to feel understood and not judged.
Myth #10 – You can tell that someone has mental ill health just by looking at them
Short of someone putting an axe through your bathroom door and screaming “Here’s Johnny” you absolutely cannot judge a book by its cover especially when it comes to mental health.
If you feel that you or someone else is struggling with their mental health don’t be afraid to ask them about it. You don’t have to have all the answers to make them feel better, sometimes it’s just about them not being on their own. Encourage them to seek support whether it be from a GP or counsellor.
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