Squashing Mental Illness Misconceptions

Following the reported suicide death of actor and comedian Robin Williams, the topics of depression, mental illness and the possible link between these issues and creativity were once again catapulted to the forefront of our cultural communication. The Web and social media sites were abuzz with speculation and opinions.

While frank, honest discussion is always a good thing, as news of Williams’ tragic death first broke, many people were quick to offer (often uninformed) opinions about depression. The stigma and misinformation were immediately evident as mourning fans questioned why he couldn’t just “get over” his depression, cited their own bouts with “the blues” and insisted that someone with so much fame, success and money should have nothing to feel bad about. Others surmised that if only the comedian realized how loved he was it would have saved him, while still others, feeling ill equipped to handle the issue, simply posted links to suicide hotlines.

Common Mental Health Myths

Let’s be honest: Mental illness makes us uncomfortable. Unlike a cancer diagnosis or a broken leg, where causes are understood and treatment methods are clear cut, depression, bipolar, anxiety and PTSD are harder to grasp.

Many people believe that mental health problems don’t affect them or those they love, but mental health issues are very common, affecting one in five American adults, according to mentalhealth.gov. According to their data for the year 2011, one in 20 Americans lived with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. 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 their communities.

Unfortunately, it’s also a myth that suicide is relatively rare. In fact, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US, accounting for the loss of more than 38,000 American lives each year, more than double the number of lives lost to homicide.

We’re often afraid to talk about mental health problems because we believe people who suffer from them are violent and unpredictable. The truth is, the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent, and only 3-5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness, according to mentalhealth.gov.

People with mental health problems are productive, hold down jobs, and are not lazy or weak. Mental illness is not a character flaw or personal weakness. Someone who is clinically depressed can’t just “get over it” if they try hard enough. Mental illness, including clinical depression, is a legitimate disease that responds to treatment.

What Causes Mental Illness?

You may be wondering, how do mental health issues begin? Many factors actually contribute to mental health problems. They can be a combination of biological factors (genetics, physical illness, injury, brain chemistry), life experiences (trauma, a history of abuse) and family history. Whatever the root cause, people with mental health problems can get better and many recover completely.

Mental health issues can often go hand in hand with addictive behaviors. Those suffering from depression, bipolar or other problems can attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. It may mask their disorder for a time or bring some temporary relief, but in the end it just adds to the problem. In fact, a high percentage of those in treatment programs are found to be dealing with a co-occurring mental health issue in addition to their addiction.

The Connection Between Comedy & Depression

Williams’ death reintroduced a topic that has been discussed before, the idea that comedians are somehow more prone to depression. Is it true and if so, what is about making others laugh that is so appealing to those who are hurting themselves?

“Comedy can often be a defensive posture against depression,” Deborah Serani, a clinical psychologist who treats performers with depression and other mental health problems told CNN.com.

Serani, the author of the book Living With Depression, says that for many comedians, humor is a “counter phobic” response to the darkness and sadness they feel. Their intelligence, she says, helps them put a funny spin on their despair.

Dr. Michael Clarke, the vice chairman for clinical affairs in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told CNN.com that research shows creativity and mental illness often go hand in hand.

“People with a more creative side do seem to have a greater rate of mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder,” he says. “We don’t know exactly why this is but it could have a biological basis in the emotional centers of the brain.”

Of course, not every comedian is mentally ill, and it’s a myth that addressing an addiction or mental health issue will negatively affect creativity. Sobriety or balanced mental health does not change your genetics, which are responsible for that creativity in the first place. Those in recovery usually find their mind is clearer, making them more able to respond to – and follow through on – their natural creative impulses.

Offering True Help

Stigmas may persist, but there are more treatments, services and community support systems than ever before for those with mental health issues.

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. Friends and loved ones can make a big difference, but professional help is needed too. If you or a loved one is suffering from a co-occurring disorder, call us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We can provide information on treatment programs, help with insurance and answer questions about the treatment process.

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at The Oaks. For more specific information on programs at The Oaks, contact us today.