How often do we hear someone say “I’m so depressed!” Or “I’m so ADD!” Usually, people are using these terms in a casual fashion to refer to a temporary, down mood or to comment on their mildly scattered state of mind. Unfortunately, stigma and misinformation about actual illnesses still exist. A mental illness is a disturbance of mood, thinking, or behavior. The individual’s symptoms may be mild or debilitating, but they undermine his or her ability to function in daily life. Some of the most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States has an episode of some type of mental illness in a given year, and many individuals are never diagnosed. Loving a person with a mental illness can be challenging, but many resources are available to help you cope. Below are truths to common misconceptions that people have about mental illness and how it affects a person’s character and personality.
1. Mental illness is not a character flaw
Even today, many people believe that depression and other mental disorders are the result of a negative attitude or some other character flaw. Often individuals with mental illness have this belief, too, and feel guilty that they can’t “kick” the disorder on their own. The most helpful thing you can do as a loved one is to remember that they didn’t choose the illness. An abundance of research exists to show that mental illnesses have a number of causes, ranging from genetic causes to faulty activity in crucial parts of the brain. Reminding your loved one that he or she has an illness, not a character flaw, is a way to be supportive.
2. Treatment can be very effective for people with mental illness
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma against seeking therapy or psychiatric treatment. Some people might think therapy and psychiatry is only for “crazy” people. The individual with the illness might be afraid to seek help for this reason, especially if his or her family is opposed to psychiatric treatment. To give another example, someone with depression might feel that nothing can help them, and that seeking treatment is pointless. (Feelings of hopelessness are common in depression, for example). Treatment can be very effective, especially when it is encouraged by family members and loved ones. Sharing your own experiences with therapy may boost your loved one book that first appointment.
3. They are committed to sometimes difficult treatment
Depending on the type of mental illness, your loved one may need long-term treatment. If medication is necessary, it may take a while to find the right medication. Some medications have side effects, and it can be a discouraging process trying to find the right treatment. The individual may at times feel like dropping out of treatment altogether. You can help by reminding him or her that while it’s difficult sometimes, not treating the illness will only make it worse. Again, openness about your own struggles (whether they be with relationships, mental health, or dealing with difficult situations) can encourage your loved one to stick it out.
4. People with mental illnesses can have full lives
Especially in the early stages of treatment, individuals may struggle with accepting their condition, and feel like they are destined to be “outsiders” in life. You can remind your loved one that with proper treatment many individuals are living full, stable lives with a mental illness. In addition, many great contributions to our society have been made by people with mental illness. One example is Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist with bipolar disorder, who has written many books on the subject of bipolar. Not only is it possible to deal with a mental illness, a person can actually learn to overcome it and be an example for others. While it may seem far away — it is possible to have a full life just like everyone else!
5. A diagnosis does not define a person
Some individuals may start to identify themselves by their illness, and have self-limiting beliefs about what they are capable of. You can help by reminding them of their strengths, interests, and the things they have achieved. Labels and diagnoses are necessary when professionals are discussing recovery. It’s important that the individual remember, however, that he or she is a multi-dimensional human being behind the diagnosis. Once under control and well-understood, a mental illness can be another part of a very complex persona. Just like the color of your hair doesn’t define you, neither does your mental illness.
6. People with mental illness can learn to communicate
Coping with mental illness, including treatment and recovery, can be a rollercoaster ride. At times, the individual can feel so overwhelmed by emotion that he or she retreats into silence. This can be frustrating for the person who just wants to help. A helpful thing to say at these times is “I may not understand what you are going through, but I want you to know I care. Please let me know what I can do to support you.” Allow them time to explain their feelings and you may be able to relate in your own way.
Coping with a mental illness can be challenging, and understanding the ups and downs of the person experiencing the conditions can be confusing. But with education, treatment, and support, individuals with mental illness can live happy, full, and successful lives. Their most important tool of recovery is the people around them who care, like you.
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