Common Myths And Misconceptions Of Mental Illness (1)

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By: Professor Taiwo Sheikh

MentalWelcome to this week’s “Mental Health Chat Room”, this is a chat room where we discuss the basics of our mental health in order to understand and have a full grasp of the rudiments of mental health and mental well-being.

This is part of our mental health advocacy activities aimed at promoting our wholesome wellness, preventing mental illness, improving our awareness of the mental illness, and understanding that effective, qualitative, and modern (technology-based) mental health care services are available in Nigeria and globally to enhance quality living, harmonious interpersonal relationships and peaceful coexistence within our communities.

We discussed a matter that was and is still trending on social media; which may have a profoundly damaging effect on the mental health-seeking behavior of our people. It is a general misconception about the relationship between our mental health and spirituality.

Mental health issues are otherwise referred to as emotional issues and the disorders always arise from abnormalities in the functioning of our brains. Because we cannot measure such disorders the way we measure temperature using a thermometer or blood pressure, or the manner in which we can test for blood sugar or conduct x-ray does not make mental illness a less medical condition just like fever, hypertension, or diabetes.

In our last chat, concluded that the negative assertion that mental health is more spiritual than physical is wrong, misleading and misconceived. Such misleading statements are based on primordial myths and misconceptions and are a clear demonstration of a lack of knowledge and understanding of the existence of the brain as an organ of the body and how it functions. It is very important that the public is well educated on the functioning of the brain and conditions that can result in the lack of proper functioning of the brain. We encouraged the public to understand that the “spiritual” approach to care for persons with mental/emotional illness constitutes only one among the three components of the care for any person that is sick (mental ill-health inclusive) and mental health care personnel usually include spiritual approach in the (holistic) care package.

In furtherance of our mental health chat, we shall dig more into common myths and misconceptions of mental illness, this is very important considering the pervasive lack of understanding of the working of the brain and the threat to the uptake of modern mental health care services that are being provided. Historically, negative stereotypes, myths and misconceptions have been associated with mental illness and here we can describe stereotype as an often unfair and untrue (almost always) belief about a group of people with a particular characteristic; a belief about a particular category of people, which could result in generalizing it to every person of that particular group. Stereotypes can be positive or negative and when overgeneralized, they are applied to all members of a group. A negative stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person, it is a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience, it is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, sex or disease condition; in this case, against persons with mental illness. Many of these stereotypes usually lead to misconceptions that have been perpetuated consistently negative across our society and especially in the social and news media, it often results in pejorative terms such as “nuts,” “cracked,”  “retarded,” “kolo,” which still abound in our conversations. They result in stigma, discrimination, and isolation of people with mental illness, as well as their families, relations and even caregivers such as the health workers who take care of the mentally ill persons. While we talk about such stereotypes in our society at large, we must also mention that these negative attitudes that reinforce stigma also exist among health workers.

What are the common myths and misconceptions about mental illness?

  1. That mentally ill are violent and dangerous; this is not true! Mental disorders are neither necessary nor sufficient causes of violence. Major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and economic factors, and this is increasing in our society as we speak! We hear of various acts of violence (including domestic violence) in our communities today, these are committed by the supposedly “normal” people in our society. If we investigate, we will discover that people who commit violent crimes are not under the burden of mental illness. It is important to note that a growing body of research shows that when people with serious mental illness commit violent or aggressive acts, other factors besides the illness itself are often at play, a big factor is co-occurring psychoactive substance use. Studies have shown that psychoactive substance use is responsible to a very large extent for violent behaviors in our communities; for practical purposes, a brief visit to our “motor parks” will shed more light on this discussion! Thus other factors may include but are not limited to adverse childhood experiences, recent experiences of assault, provocation, abuse and environmental factors.

Therefore, if a person has a severe mental illness, (they) may have other risk factors for violent behavior, so it may not be a mental illness that is driving the violence, but rather factors like having been abused as a child, being unemployed, or living in a high-crime neighborhood.

It is important to learn and understand these issues not only to better treat mental illness and to support their families and communities but also to combat the misconception that most people with serious mental illness are violent. Finally, most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3 percent to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it, because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.

  1. Another misconception is that the poor and unintelligent are more likely to be mentally ill; this is not true! In fact, in some parlance, the opposite is considered the case. We have received reports of persons with mental ill-health as being highly intelligent before the illness struck! It is also well known that the intellectual capacity of individuals with mental ill-health is preserved; they retain their memories and understand the logic. Quite often, people get dumbfounded when confronted by highly intelligent mentally ill persons, yet they try to devalue the mentally ill by creating dry and negative jokes about their intellectual capacity. There are conditions that are characterized by low intellectual capacity, the category of such disorders are different and must not be confused with common mental disorders that we encounter on an everyday basis. Such disorders are childhood developmental disorders that are recognizable during childhood and may continue throughout adult life.

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