Professional News
Americans Still Cling to Myths About Mental Illness, Survey Finds
Psychiatric News
Volume 36 Number 23 page 14-14

People with mental illness are violent. Psychiatric disorders are not medical in nature. Mental illness is a result of bad parenting. These are just some of the popular misconceptions about mental illness reported by psychiatrists and other mental health experts, according to a survey from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD).

While psychiatrists recognize these statements not only as false, but injurious, many people still believe they are the truth. A NARSAD survey sent to more than 100 psychiatrists, mental health professionals, and scientists from around the country revealed that even after the Decade of the Brain, misconceptions about mental illness are pervasive in the American populace.

Some of the common misconceptions respondents encountered in their professional lives were that depression results from a character flaw, people with schizophrenia have a split personality, mental illnesses can be willed away, and addiction demonstrates a person’s lack of willpower, for example.

When family members of a person with mental illness voice such beliefs, they can prevent that person from getting the help they need, according to Husseini Manji, M.D., who responded to the survey. Manji is chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Pathophysiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and also sees patients in a psychiatric practice. "Years can pass while someone is suffering," Manji said in an interview with Psychiatric News, "and that person is being told that [the mental illness] is something that he or she can control, and that he or she should just shape up."

In addition, Manji said, patients in families who hold these mistaken beliefs about mental illness have a hard time complying with and remaining in treatment. For instance, when a patient begins to take medication, there may be a delay in the treatment effect, or the patient may experience side effects.

This is exactly the time when patients need a great deal of encouragement from family members to keep taking the medications, but in these families, there is discouragement and even pressure to abandon the treatment.

Family members who hold false beliefs about mental illness tell the patient that he or she doesn’t need pills to fix what is wrong, according to Manji.

Other false beliefs Manji has encountered in his practice are that experimentation with illicit drugs in adolescence causes schizophrenia, depression is always due to a disturbing life event, electroconvulsive therapy is barbaric and should never be used, and that serious mental illnesses are not common in successful, accomplished families.

While the patients may have a difficult time explaining the biological basis of mental illness to their families—and being believed—Manji said that families often listen to the professional who is treating their family member.

"I educate families. . .and tell them the good news is that mental illnesses are neurochemical and that the patient can be treated," Manji said. He has used diabetes as a common example to help families understand that in that disease, the pancreas stops producing insulin, "no matter how hard you will it to, it won’t make more insulin, and the patient must get treatment." With mental illness, treatment is just as necessary, he explains.

In the last few years, Manji said, he has seen a slight shift in the public’s perception of mental illness. "There is less misunderstanding," he noted. He attributes this to the fact that there has been more of an effort by professional and advocacy organizations and by responsible media to educate the public about the dramatic advances in the understanding and treatment of mental illness.

More information about the survey can be found on the Web at www.mhsource.com/narsad/about/press.html.

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