|   Answering your mental health questions

What Is Mental Illness?

The termĀ mental illnessĀ collectively refers to all diagnosable mental disorders. It is by necessity a broad term because there are so many different types of mental illness: conditions as distinct from one another as Alzheimer’s, alcoholism and autism all fall under the category of mental illness.

Many people live with a mental illness. According to mental illness statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), respectively, approximately 25 percent of all American adults and 20 percent of Canadian adults under the age of 65 have a mental illness of some form.

Some Truths about Mental Illness

Unfortunately, despite how common mental illness is, and despite successful efforts to increase public awareness about different mental illnesses, there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding them.

Important Resources

CDC Mental Illness Surveillance Report: Statistical information about mental illness in the U.S.

NAMI: Mental illness facts from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, with a link to a downloadable PDF of facts and numbers.

CMHA FAQ: Answers to the Canadian Mental Health Association’s frequently asked questions about mental health and mental illness.

One big misconception about some mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety disorders and eating disorders, is that they are somehow a personal weakness or character flaw. This could not be further from the truth, and this misconception leads directly to another, even more damaging misunderstanding some people have, which is that individuals suffering from these mental illnesses have it within their control not to be depressed or anxious or anorexic — as though they could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Believing that someone with a mental illness can simply choose to be well is like believing someone with celiac disease can simply choose not to be allergic to gluten. Living with a mental illness is not a choice.

Yet another mistaken belief some people have is that mental illnesses mostly affect the poor and intellectually feeble. In reality, mental illness doesn’t care about the size of your paycheck; it affects all financial ranks. And some mental disorders actually occur more commonly in people of above-average intelligence.

Inaccurate beliefs like these create stigma around mental illness. Some people who are mentally ill don’t seek the help they need because they don’t want to be seen as weak or unable to handle the pressures of their lives. Other people with a history of mental illness in their families are reluctant to admit it because they fear it will reflect negatively on them.

The best thing you can do to avoid carrying around false beliefs about mental illness is to educate yourself about the causes, symptoms, treatments, prevention and affected demographics of some of the most common mental disorders.

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