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Myths of Mental Health and Therapy


It is the sad truth, there still is significant stigma attached to mental health conditions in our society, much of which relies on old-fashioned and outdated thinking and assumptions. In the not-so-distant past, society shunned people with mental health conditions. Interestingly, it believed that evil spirits or divine retribution were responsible for mental illness. Although this way of thinking has been extricated from society in much of the world, it still casts a long shadow.

Here are a few of the many of the common myths surrounding mental health: 

Mental Health problems are uncommon.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the statement above was false. Today, the statement is further from the truth than it has, perhaps, ever been. In 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that “1 in 4 people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.” Currently, 450 million people are experiencing such conditions. As the WHO explain, mental disorders are “among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.” One of the most common mental health disorders is depression, affecting more than 264 million people globally in 2017. A more recent study, which concentrates on the United States, concludes that the number of adults experiencing depression has tripled during the pandemic. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), another common mental disorder, affects an estimated 6.8 million adults in the U.S., equating to more than 3 in every 100 people.

People suffering from mental health conditions cannot work.

An old but persistent myth is that people with mental health issues cannot hold down a job or be useful members of the workforce. This is entirely false. It is true that someone living with a particularly severe mental health condition might be unable to carry out regular work. However, the majority of people with mental health issues can be as productive as individuals without mental health disorders.

Mental Health problems are a sign of weakness.

This is no more true than saying that a broken leg is a sign of weakness. Mental health disorders are illnesses, not signs of poor character. Similarly, people with, for instance, depression, cannot “snap out of it” any more than someone with diabetes or psoriasis can immediately recover from their condition. If anything, the opposite is true: Fighting a mental health condition takes a great deal of strength and courage. 

Mental Health problems are permanent.

A mental health diagnosis is not necessarily a “life sentence.” Each individual’s experience with mental illness is different. Some people might experience episodes, between which they return to their version of “normal.” Others may find treatments — medication or talking therapies — that restore balance to their lives. Some people may not feel as though they have fully recovered from a mental illness, and some may experience progressively worse symptoms. However, the take-home message is that many people will recover to a greater or lesser degree. It is also important to consider that “recovery” means different things to different people. Some might view recovery as a return to exactly how they felt before symptoms began. For others, recovery might be relief from symptoms and a return to a satisfying life, however different it may be. It is thus important to remember that mental illnesses are not always permanent. 

People with a mental illness are violent.

This, of course, is a myth. Thankfully, as the world becomes more aware of mental health conditions, this misconception is slowly dying away. Even individuals who are experiencing the most serious conditions, such as schizophrenia, are mostly nonviolent. It is however true that some people with certain mental illnesses can become violent and unpredictable, but they are considered to be in the minority.

Therapy and self-help are a waste of time. 

Treatment for mental health problems varies depending on the individual and could include medication, therapy, or both. Many individuals work with a support system during the healing and recovery process. As mentioned before, this is a different experience for everyone and recovery is also considered different for everyone. 

I can't do anything for a person with a mental health problem.

Friends and loved ones can make a big difference. Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental health problems and less than 20% of children and adolescents receive needed treatment. Friends and family can be important influences to help someone get the treatment and services they need by:

  • Reaching out and letting them know you are available to help
  • Helping them access mental health services
  • Learning and sharing the facts about mental health, especially if you hear something that isn't true
  • Treating them with respect, just as you would anyone else
  • Refusing to define them by their diagnosis or using labels such as "crazy"

Misguided notions about what really goes on in a practicing psychotherapist’s office often come from novels or television. There are numerous myths about psychotherapy that continue to show up in the written word, on the screen, and in the workplace.

Some of the common myths about therapy include:

People who seek psychotherapy are weak, mentally ill, or crazy.

This is highly untrue. Nowadays if you seek treatment, it’s often viewed as a sign of resourcefulness. The average therapy client struggles with many of the same problems we all struggle with daily: relationships, self-doubt, confidence, self-esteem, work-life stress, life transitions, depression, and anxiety. The preferred designation for the person in therapy is “client,” not “patient,” for that very reason.

Therapists sit behind desks taking notes while you lie on a couch.

This is rarely the case. Trained clinicians know that the arrangement and distance between them and the client are critical for a safe and workable therapeutic alliance. Psychological or physical separation from the client can create subtle authority and intimidation and an inability on the client’s part to fully connect and disclose information pertinent to treatment. The typical therapeutic setting is much like your living room where both parties sit in comfortable chairs without barriers between them. Good therapists often ask if the distance is comfortable and refrain from taking notes until after the session so they can be present with clients.

Psychotherapy can solve problems in one or two sessions.

While convenient for the novel or television show to have a character “fixed” in a session or two, it doesn’t work that way in real life. The average session is around 50 to 60 minutes and the first session is basically an intake and getting acquainted session. To get to the heart of a problem, psychotherapy takes many more sessions over time. Generally speaking, something’s not working when a client works with the same therapist for excessively long periods of time. The average therapy course is three to four months.

Therapy is only for very serious mental conditions.

This is definitely not true. In fact, psychological treatments are useful for everyone suffering a mental health condition, no matter what level of severity.They are often particularly useful for people early on, who are suffering mild to moderate levels of a mental health condition, because they help to stop things getting worse, and the person is more likely to get better quicker without needing more complex interventions.Whereas someone towards the more moderate to severe end of the spectrum will probably need therapy as well as medication.

People who go to therapy are weak.

That’s a sad, unfair and common myth. It’s ridiculous. Depression, anxiety and mental health conditions are health conditions. Mental health conditions are health conditions and we know that there are effective treatments for them. They’re not a sign of a character flaw, or something that is the person’s fault. They’re things that can happen to any of us due to certain biological or genetic predispositions, and experiences that we have throughout our life. In the current day, anyone who experiences significant loss or stress is at risk of developing a depression or anxiety condition and that is not a sign of weakness. It’s just a sign of being human.

All therapists are the same.

No. Therapists are individuals, they have different personalities and different therapeutic approaches.A lot of therapists would use a particular type of therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy to treat depression and anxiety nowadays. But there are many other treatment types. So you have to find the individual that you click with and the therapy that’s right for your condition.

Once you start therapy, you’re in it for life.

Definitely not. The vast majority of people will go to somewhere between 6 and 10 sessions and then that’s the end of it. Some may top up the following year, or at some other stage in their life. But most therapy will be concluded in a couple of months. Other common myths about therapy include the cost, the notion that therapy is always about moving forward and the misconception that therapy rooms are full happy and smiling therapists.

Mental health challenges thus affect millions of people around the world. Unfortunately, misconceptions about therapy often discourage people from seeking help. They also contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and prevent people from learning more about or utilising the services of trained mental health professionals.