Breaking the Stigma: Challenging 3 Common Myths About Mental Illness

By Dorette Greene, LMSW

On a recent drive home from work I observed a bumper sticker on a car that read: “I AM AN EDP.” For anyone that is unaware, “EDP” is an abbreviation utilized by many medical institutions, the Office of Mental Health (OMH) for the state of New York, and the New York City Police Department (NYPD), which stands for “emotionally disturbed person.” 

As a psychotherapist and mental health professional, working both in an outpatient context as well as in inpatient with acutely mentally ill individuals, I had so many questions upon reading this bumper sticker. I wondered if this person was actually an EDP, and if so, were they utilizing this sticker to shed awareness on mental health overall? I also questioned whether this sticker was meant as a joke, at the expense of people who struggle with mental health issues daily. Either way, having these questions and no context for an answer got me to thinking about the negative stereotypes and stigma that come with having mental health issues/illness.

Below I discuss 3 common myths and facts about mental illness with the intention of minimizing stigma and creating a dialogue of sensitivity and empathy towards people who are affected by mental illness.

Myth #1: Mental illness is uncommon.
Fact: Mental illness is quite common and prevalent.

According to a list of Mental Health Myths and Facts developed by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The issue is that many people don’t always recognize that what they are experiencing is related to mental illness. There are those that only conceptualize psychosis and psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and other perceptual disturbances as being related to mental illness. The truth, however, is that symptoms of other disorders such as anxiety and depression are also very prevalent and fall into the realm of mental illness.

Myth #2: Mental illness is caused by a personal weakness.
Fact: Having a mental health issue/illness is not a choice, nor is it based on any fault of the person experiencing it.

Mental illness can be caused by several different factors that are not inherent in the choice of the person experiencing that particular illness. Some mental health conditions can be hereditary (ex: bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), organic (ex: Alzheimer’s and dementia), related to physical trauma (ex: traumatic brain injury), a medical disorder (ex: seizure and strokes), substance-induced (drugs and alcohol), or potentially can be exacerbated by socioeconomic factors such as poverty and limited access to healthcare. People with mental health illness are often not “faking it” as some may assume. No one, if given the choice, would choose to have a mental illness, so sensitivity to the unique struggles of those experiencing mental illness is paramount in promoting adequate treatment, awareness, and access to appropriate services which will assist them in overcoming and stabilizing their condition.

Myth #3: Mental illness is not a real medical condition:
Fact: Many mental illnesses, like many physical ailments, require treatment

If someone breaks their leg, has uncontrolled diabetes, or heart disease they will likely seek the assistance of a medical profession to obtain medication and treatment to address the acuity or even chronic nature of their condition. This may include medication or physical therapy as treatment options. Mental health conditions are similar, in that they may require that someone complies with some sort of treatment regimen, be it intensive psychotherapy, group treatment, or even medication to assist them in maintaining stability, being able to function, and remaining healthy.

Ultimately, mental illness is a very real thing that should be considered with the same sensitivity to that of medical conditions and ailments. Though some symptoms may not be visible to the naked eye, and at times those experiencing symptoms may not be able to articulate or verbalize their experiences, it does not mean that they are not experiencing great amounts of torment, frustration, feelings of hopelessness, fear, and despair. Lack of empathy or even continued stereotyping and stigma around mental illness is insensitive and does no more than add insult to injury for the millions of Americans living with mental illness on a daily basis.

Dorette Greene is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.