This year’s Mental Illness Awareness Week is October 4th - 10th, and is themed “What People with Mental Illness want you to know.” An overwhelming “wish” of those with mental illness is for the stigma to end, misconceptions stop, and the voice and words of experts and those struggling to be heard.
During Mental Illness Awareness Week, the best way to participate in the theme is to do your part in educating yourself, listening, and sharing the importance of mental illness.
We’re taking a look at 4 areas of mental illness and addressing the common misconceptions around them which cause stigma.
There are a handful of misconceptions related to anxiety disorders. The American Psychiatric Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.
To help end the stigma, we can start by learning and understanding the difference between “normal” anxiety and an anxiety disorder.
Everyone feels anxious once in a while. Before making a speech, or going on a first date, you may feel anxiety mentally and physically. It becomes a disorder when the anxiety is persistent, recurrent, and oftentimes for “no reason.” People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry and the anxiety has serious influence over their daily life.
The harm in not understanding the difference is the overuse of the word “anxiety” and subsequent belittling of anxiety disorders.
There are 5 main types of anxiety:
Each of these anxiety disorders come with specific symptoms and can be helped with treatment. To learn more about these anxiety disorders, refer to the National Institute of Mental Health website.
“I never know when my anxiety will attack. I may go from laughing to yelling, all in the matter of a few seconds. When this happens, I need you to just wait it out.” - Kimberli Davino, The Mighty
Mood disorders mainly affect a person’s emotional state. Three of the most common mood disorders include: Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and Cyclothymic Disorder.
Unfortunately, many of us have heard the word “bipolar” used incorrectly. Similar to the misuse of the word “anxiety,” using bipolar as an insult or as a slur negatively impacts those living with the illness and adds to the stigma.
A person with a mood disorder will experience long periods of extreme happiness, extreme sadness, or both. The difference between normal mood swings and the disorders is the length at which these symptoms are present and it’s impact on day to day life.
There are a slew of misconceptions around mood disorders, and bipolar disorder in particular. Taking from a myth-busting article by Healthline, here are some of the top myths and truths:
MYTH Bipolar disorder is just mood swings, which everyone has
TRUTH Bipolar is more than emotion shifts, it is extreme and affects energy, activity, and sleep.
MYTH Mania is productive. You’re in a good mood and you’re fun to be around.
TRUTH Mania causes intense highs with its own set of symptoms, but can get dangerous and unhealthy quickly.
“One of the things that baffles me … is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls.” - Carrie Fisher
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are serious, often fatal illnesses. They are associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions,.
A major misconception related to eating disorders is that it is a lifestyle choice. It is not, and instead results in the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) leads in raising awareness about eating disorders. They point out the misconception of the look and definition of eating disorders. Eating disorders look different from person to person. Recent studies in the US have broadened definitions that more accurately reflect the reality of the disorders, resulting in a higher prevalence of eating disorders.
“You can’t ‘just eat.’ The world inside your head is so twisted and controlling, a prison of black and white; it makes you fear every aspect of your life outside of your ‘control.’”
“Even if you appear ‘healthy,’ you may not be… physically and emotionally. Eating disorders manifest in many ways.”
Substance disorders occur when a person’s alcohol or drug abuse leads to health, work, school, or relationship problems.
The most common substances used include: Opiates (pain killers), Stimulants (cocaine), Depressants (alcohol), LSD, and marijuana. The person will go through stages before addiction or a substance disorder, these include experimental use, regular use, problem use, and then addiction.
The overwhelming stigma around addiction and substance abuse makes for difficult conversations with loved ones, fewer people asking and getting help, and misinformation.
Doctor David Sack shares common misconceptions about substance disorders, saying these ar make for greater stigma and a more difficult road to recovery:
MYTH Addiction is a choice
TRUTH Addiction is NOT a choice, and genetics/environmental factors.family/etc all contribute to it.
MYTH People who get addicted to prescription drugs are different from people who get addicted to illegal drugs.
TRUTH “Legal” drugs to get high carries less stigma than illicit drugs, but they are just as dangerous, and addiction is just as serious.
Some heartfelt, honest quotes from The Mighty by those experiencing addiction or substance abuse:
“Addiction is not the entirety of me. I am me; I am not just my addiction. There is a lot of other stuff to love.” — Ryan Sachse
“People who suffer from addiction do not choose to be that way, nor do they have to let it define them.” — Teresa Taylor
This week and beyond it’s important to do our part in listening to, understanding, and providing help and resources to those living with mental illness. There is so much stigma and misconception, it’s important to listen to those struggling and learn what they experience, feel and need.