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Myths and Facts About Mental Illness and Addictions

Mental Health Myths/Facts

Myth: There's no hope for people with mental illnesses.
Fact: There are more treatments, strategies, and community supports than ever before, and even more are on the horizon. People with mental illnesses lead active, productive lives.

Myth: I can't do anything for someone with mental health needs.
Fact: You can do a lot, starting with the way you act and how you speak. You can nurture an environment that builds on people's strengths and promotes good mental health. For example:

  • Avoid labeling people with words like "crazy," "wacko," "loony," or by their diagnosis. Instead of saying someone is a "schizophrenic" say "a person with schizophrenia."
  • (Learn the facts) about mental health and share them with others, especially if you hear something that is untrue.
  • Treat people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity, as you would anybody else.
  • Respect the rights of people with mental illnesses and don't discriminate against them when it comes to housing, employment, or education. Like other people with disabilities, people with mental health needs are protected under Federal and State laws.

Myth: People with mental illnesses are violent and unpredictable.
Fact: In reality, the vast majority of people who have mental health needs are no more violent than anyone else. You probably know someone with a mental illness and don't even realize it.

Myth: Mental illnesses cannot affect me.
Fact: Mental illnesses are surprisingly common; they affect almost every family in America. Mental illnesses do not discriminate-they can affect anyone.

Myth: Mental illness is the same as mental retardation.
Fact: The two are distinct disorders. A mental retardation diagnosis is characterized by limitations in intellectual functioning and difficulties with certain daily living skills. In contrast, people with mental illnesses-health conditions that cause changes in a person's thinking, mood, and behavior-have varied intellectual functioning, just like the general population.

Myth: Mental illnesses are brought on by a weakness of character.
Fact: Mental illnesses are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. Research has shown genetic and biological factors are associated with schizophrenia, depression, and alcoholism. Social influences, such as loss of a loved one or a job, can also contribute to the development of various disorders.

Myth: People with mental illnesses cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.
Fact: In essence, all jobs are stressful to some extent. Productivity is maximized when there is a good match between the employee's needs and working conditions, whether or not the individual has mental health needs.

Myth: People with mental health needs, even those who have received effective treatment and have recovered, tend to be second-rate workers on the job. ()
Fact: Employers who have hired people with mental illnesses report good attendance and punctuality, as well as motivation, quality of work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) show that there are no differences in productivity when people with mental illnesses are compared to other employees.

Myth: Once people develop mental illnesses, they will never recover.
Fact: Studies show that most people with mental illnesses get better, and many recover completely. Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities. For some individuals, recovery is the ability to live a fulfilling and productive life. For others, recovery implies the reduction or complete remission of symptoms. Science has shown that having hope plays an integral role in an individual's recovery.

Myth: Therapy and self-help are wastes of time. Why bother when you can just take one of those pills you hear about on TV?
Fact: Treatment varies depending on the individual. A lot of people work with therapists, counselors, their peers, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, and social workers in their recovery process. They also use self-help strategies and community supports. Often these methods are combined with some of the most advanced medications available.

Myth: Children do not experience mental illnesses. Their actions are just products of bad parenting.
Fact: A report from the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health showed that in any given year 5-9 percent of children experience serious emotional disturbances. Just like adult mental illnesses, these are clinically diagnosable health conditions that are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, social, and sometimes even genetic factors.

Myth: Children misbehave or fail in school just to get attention.
Fact: Behavior problems can be symptoms of emotional, behavioral, or mental disorders, rather than merely attention-seeking devices. These children can succeed in school with appropriate understanding, attention, and mental health services.


Addiction & Treatment Myths/Facts

Myth: Addiction is a bad habit, the result of moral weakness and over-indulgence
Fact: Addiction is a chronic, life-threatening condition, like hypertension, arteriosclerosis, and adult diabetes.
Fact: Addiction has roots in genetic susceptibility, social circumstance, and personal behavior.
Fact: Certain drugs are highly addictive, rapidly causing biochemical and structural changes in the brain. Others can be used for longer periods of time before they begin to cause inescapable cravings and compulsive use.

Myth: Bad, stupid, and crazy people are most susceptible to becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Fact: Addiction is an equal opportunity disease. It does not discriminate in any way against any class of people. It strikes equally among individuals in all ethnic, socio-economic, intelligence, and emotional wellness categories.

Myth: If an addict has enough willpower, he or she can stop abusing alcohol and using drugs.
Fact: Few people addicted to alcohol and other drugs can simply stop using them, no matter how strong their inner resolve. Most need at least one course of structured substance abuse treatment to end their dependence on alcohol and other drugs. Some achieve sobriety through participation in community-based support organizations (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous), but relapse rates under this condition are very high. The most effective approach is one that combines structured treatment and community-based support.

Myth: Many people relapse, so treatment obviously does not work.
Fact: Like every other medical treatment, addiction treatment centers cannot guarantee lifelong recovery. Relapse is often a part of the recovery process; it is always possible--and treatable. Even if a person never achieves perfect abstinence, addiction treatment can reduce the number and duration of relapses, lower the incidence of related problems such as crime and poor overall health, improve the individual's ability to function in daily life, and strengthen the individual to better cope with the next temptation or craving. These improvements reduce the social and economic costs of addiction.

Myth: People with alcohol and other drug problems must attend 28-day hospital-based treatment programs, where they dry out and emerge new individuals, cured of their problems.
Fact: Treatment is provided in many different settings, in many different ways, and for different lengths of time. It is provided in hospitals, residential facilities, free-standing clinics, and counselors' and therapists' private offices. Treatment often follows a "continuum of care," within which the individual participates in one or more levels of care. These levels range from highly restrictive and intensive to only slightly restrictive and intensive, as follows:

  • Medically supervised detoxification
  • Intensive residential treatment
  • Extended residential care
  • Halfway house, or supported living
  • Partial hospitalization, or day treatment
  • Intensive outpatient treatment
  • Supportive outpatient treatment
  • Continuing Care
  • Individual counseling and therapy

Myth: Once sobriety is achieved, whether with or without the benefit of treatment, most individuals can eventually return to social use of alcohol and/or drugs.
Fact: Addiction is a chronic condition that does not disappear, even after extended periods of sobriety. This is true regardless of the individual's drug of choice, level of self-control, or length of abstinence.

Myth: An individual who is addicted to one drug or family of drugs can undergo treatment for and recover from addiction to that particular drug and still use other drugs with impunity.
Fact: Cross-addiction nearly always occurs when an addict tries to switch drugs, regardless of the reason. Cross-addiction invariably takes the form of one or the other of two possible outcomes: 1) The individual quickly becomes addicted to the second substance, or 2) The individual returns to the original drug while under the influence of the second one.

Myth: We have reached the limits of what we can do to treat addiction.
Fact: The more we learn about addiction, the more effective treatment becomes. Even though current treatment methods are far from perfect, today's treatment providers are being challenged to stretch their knowledge base and find more effective approaches to prevention, intervention, and treatment.

Source: (About two-thirds of this article was taken from The White Paper: Effectiveness of Substance Abuse Treatment, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February, 1995. The balance was written by Charles N. Roper, PhD, LCDC.)


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