By Presidential Proclamation May is Mental Health Awareness Month. However being more aware of mental health issues isn’t necessarily helpful if our basic understanding of mental health isn’t accurate. Given the stigma and fear that often is associated with mental illness today, we’re going to discuss some of the common myths that exist and provide some reliable information.

Myth # 1 Mental Health is really different from physical health.

Many folks see mental health and therefore mental illness as something that is really different from our physical health. In doing so, they have one of two reactions: Either they dismiss it as being something that is “just in your head” or they are frightened of it and treat it a something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about.

We take a heart condition seriously but we don’t feel hostile towards someone who has it.  The same must be true for those who suffer from psychological disorders. And here is the point: new research reveals that the complicated reality of emotional disorders is, at base, medical.  New research from PET scans of the brain has shown that trauma actually causes physical changes in the brain and likewise that psychotherapy and medication can correct these pathological changes.

Myth #2 The mentally ill are really different from normal people.

Although understanding emotional problems from a medical model is helpful in many ways, it also has its limitations and can be misleading. For example in medicine one can say that a person either has a virus and is sick or doesn’t and is well. Psychiatric disorders are different. What we refer to as mental health is a relative term.

While we used to think of people as being sane or insane, modern science has shown that there are many other types of disorders in addition to psychosis.    Mental illness has to do with the degree of distortion that a person has in his/her perception and responses to reality.  What is not so widely understood is that everyone distorts reality to some extent, either from genetic inheritance, childhood trauma or current environmental stressors. The critical question is not if a person distorts reality (we all do to some extent) but how much?

The term disorder is only applied to someone whose level of distortion significantly interferes with or impairs his/her ability to function in life. Folks need to understand that someone with a psychiatric diagnosis is really not that much different from anyone else.

Myth # 3 Mental patients are usually violent or not very intelligent

With all of the horrible shootings and bombings lately, many fear that most mentally ill folks are violent. Likewise, there is a common stigma that, if a person has a psychological disorder, s/he must not be very smart.

These beliefs are false. The facts are very clear that violent tendencies or low intelligence are not due to mental illness. Throughout history great people have suffered from severe mental illness. Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln anguished with depression.  Likewise while most violent folks may be mentally ill, it does not follow that all mentally ill folks are violent. That’s like saying, “All cows have four legs, and therefore all four legged creatures are cows.

Myth # 4 Depression or anxiety are just normal parts of life and don’t need medical treatment.

Many people think that being depressed or anxious are just a part of life that we have to learn to live with.

While this is true in some sense, this view doesn’t understand that mood disorders vary dramatically from the mild to the severe and, that, when they reach a certain threshold, they can impair and interfere with a person’s ability to live his/her life successfully. Seeking treatment can reduce suffering and dramatically improve a person’s level of functioning.

Myth # 5 Mental illness is a lifelong disease.    

Many fear mental illness out of a sense of hopelessness because they believe that if you have it, you will always have it and, besides, there is nothing that can be done to help.

In fact, advanced psychotherapeutic techniques often combined with medication, have been found to be remarkably effective in treating most psychiatric disorders and returning patients to healthy and productive lives, often within a matter of a few weeks or months.