Medical myths: Mental health misconceptions.


Over recent years, mental health has slowly moved out of the shadows. After centuries of being sidelined, our state of mental well-being is gradually receiving more of the attention that it deserves. However,many myths persist. Here, we address 11 common misconceptions.

As we approach World Mental Health Day on October 10, this edition of Medical Myths will focus on mental health.

Although the topic receives increasing attention and research, there are still many myths and misconceptions associated with mental health.

Sadly, there is still a significant stigma attached to mental health conditions, with much of this relying on old-fashioned thinking and outdated assumptions. As with many things in life, the more information we are armed with, the less likely we are to allow myths to color our opinions.

In the not-so-distant past, society shunned people with mental health conditions. Some people believed that evil spirits or divine retribution were responsible for mental illness. Although this way of thinking has been extricated from society in much of the world, it still casts a long shadow.

As 2020 continues unabated, the mental health of the world has taken a beating. Addressing untruths relating to our mental well-being is more pressing than ever.

Below, we explore 11 common misconceptions regarding mental health.

1. Mental health problems are uncommon

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement above was false. Today, the statement is further from the truth than it has, perhaps, ever been.

In 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that “1 in 4 people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.”

Currently, 450 million people are experiencing such conditions. As the WHO explain, mental disorders are “among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.”

One of the most common mental health disorders is depression, affecting more than 264 million people globally in 2017. A more recent study, which concentrates on the United States, concludes that the number of adults experiencing depression has tripled during the pandemic.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), another common mental disorder, affects an estimated 6.8 million adults in the U.S., equating to more than 3 in every 100 people.

2. Panic attacks can be fatal

Panic attacks are incredibly unpleasant, involving a racing heartbeat and an overriding sense of fear. However, they cannot directly be fatal.

It is worth noting, though, that someone who is having a panic attack might be more liable to have an accident. If someone is experiencing a panic attack or can feel one coming on, finding a safe space can help mitigate this risk.

3. People with mental health conditions cannot work

An old but persistent myth is that people with mental health issues cannot hold down a job or be useful members of the workforce. This is entirely false.

It is true that someone living with a particularly severe mental health condition might be unable to carry out regular work. However, the majority of people with mental health issues can be as productive as individuals without mental health disorders.

A U.S. study published in 2014 investigated employment status according to mental illness severity. The authors found that, as expected, “Employment rates decreased with increasing mental illness severity.”

However, 54.5% of individuals with severe conditions were employed, compared with 75.9% of people without a mental illness, 68.8% of people with mild mental illness, and 62.7% of people with moderate mental illness.

When the researchers looked at the effect of age, they found that the employment gap between people with a mental health condition and those without widened with advancing age. In people aged 18–25 years, the difference in employment rates between those with and without a serious mental illness was just 1%, but in the 50–64 bracket, the gap was 21%.

4. Mental health problems are a sign of weakness

This is no more true than saying that a broken leg is a sign of weakness. Mental health disorders are illnesses, not signs of poor character. Similarly, people with, for instance, depression, cannot “snap out of it” any more than someone with diabetes or psoriasis can immediately recover from their condition.

If anything, the opposite is true: Fighting a mental health condition takes a great deal of strength.

5. Only people without friends need therapists

There is a large difference between structured talking therapies and speaking with friends. Both can help people with mental illness in different ways, but a trained therapist can address issues constructively and in ways that even the best of friends cannot match.

Also, not everyone can open up entirely in front of their nearest and dearest. Therapy is confidential, objective, and entirely focused on the individual, which is not generally possible in more informal chats with untrained friends.

Plus, some people do not have close friends. There are many possible causes of this, and it is no reason to look down on someone.


Bisi Adesina
Bisi Adesina
Akinlabi Bisola is a health and meds journalist with a deep background in Public Health Education and with a B.Sc in Health Education and Masters in Public Health Educator. You can catch up on her articles on her website

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