The theme for FOM 2016 "Mental illnesses - Myths and Facts"

Myths, misconceptions and negative stereotypes of people with a mental illness contribute to stigma, which makes mental health problems even more difficult to bear than the pain and suffering of the illness itself.

Where do these myths come from?

Ignorance is based on a lack of true and accurate knowledge about mental health. When people don’t know about or don’t trust the science, then mistaken ideas and myths fill the gap and persist.

Myths may be associated with ancient though mistaken cultural ideas. Easy early explanatory models of mental illnesses mistook illness as the work of Gods, demons and evil spirits for lack of a better understanding. Scientific study of mental health has made remarkable advances, but the knowledge gained has not permeated into the depths of society. So the myths too often remain unquestioned in peoples’ minds.

How do myths interfere with efforts to get help and treatment?

1. When mental illness is perceived as a curse that must be endured without any prospect for relief, people don’t seek or expect help. The illness becomes a source of shame, and so it must be hidden. Instead of useful help, affected persons may be condemned to a life of suffering that could have been prevented.

2. Magical and faith healing practices delay access to scientific treatment leading to needlessly persisting disability.

3. Failure to recognise symptoms and signs as an indication of mental illnesses may result in unreasonable blame, hurtful labelling and stereotyping.

4. Problems arising from mental illnesses—like violence, disorganization and behaving in ways that are difficult for others to understand—may result in ostracising instead of supporting people who need and would benefit from help and care.

The nature of myths and mistaken ideas are not solely the product of ancient times. Such ideas continue to re-emerge and change with the times. Modern myths based suspicion, not just superstition, emphasise the “dangers” of treatment, including medicines, centres providing mental health care and psychiatrists.

The following ancient and modern ideas about mental illness are some examples of myths that persist:

1. Mental illnesses are the result of past sins, a curse or the effect of evil spirits.

2. People with mental illnesses are intellectually impaired.

3. Marriage and having children can cure mental illnesses.

4. Medical treatment promotes dependence on medicines and makes people unproductive.

5. Once someone has a mental illness, they will have it forever and never recover.

6. Mentally ill persons should be put away in institutions or chained for the safety of themselves and others.

7. Persons with mental illnesses are considered violent and dangerous, rather than vulnerable and suffering.

The list goes on. In addition to the burden of stigma arising from these myths on people with mental illnesses, such stigma also affects their families, who also suffer from distress resulting from shame and guilt brought about by stigma.

The stigma of mental illnesses may be even more challenging to deal with than the illness itself. Replacing ignorance with awareness and dispelling harmful myths is an essential task in the effort to transform stigmatising societies into supportive communities for persons with mental illnesses.