Now more than ever, mental health has become a hot-button issue. Recent revelations surrounding the Germanwings co-pilot who intentionally downed a plane filled with passengers have sparked more conversation surrounding mental health and illness.

It is unfortunate that only when tragedy occurs do we have a national dialogue about mental health. While these conversations are important, it is important to keep the conversation going with a look at five powerful myths surrounding depression and other mental illness.

Powerful myth #1: Depression is imaginary

This is one of the most common myths of mental illness. Those who have no experience with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness may believe that it is “all in your head.” When shared, this kind of thinking can be especially dangerous, as it makes the person suffering feel like they have done something wrong, or they are somehow damaged. These feelings bring with them powerful feelings of shame, and can lead to a missed diagnosis.

Myth buster: Depression is a very real condition that is caused by a combination of factors

In one sense, depression is partially in your head in that the brain chemistry in depressed people is different from the brain chemistry of those who are not depressed. However, depression is a very real condition that can be caused by a combination of factors including genetics (even that is in question), environment, and events. Depression can be triggered by any number of things, such as childbirth in the case of post-partum depression or a traumatic event. People suffering from a chronic illness such as chronic pain are four times as likely to suffer from depression at some point, and soldiers returning from active duty may experience depression in combination with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Powerful myth #2: Depression and sadness is the same thing

People who have not experienced depression may believe that depression is just a more extreme version of feeling sad or blue. They may feel like depression is something you get over or just decide to change, or that it will go through stages, like grief, eventually disappearing on its own.

Myth buster: Depression is to sadness as a monsoon is to a light mist

Sadness is a temporary feeling that may be a part of depression, but in general it is temporary and does usually resolve on its own. Depression is a long-term condition that requires treatment of some kind. Depressed people report sadness in terms of a whole-body feeling of heavy, inescapable gloom.

Sadness is just one symptom of depression. Others can include:

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of interest
  • Fatigue

The important distinction is that sadness goes away; depression requires assistance to usher it out the door.

Powerful myth #3: I don’t have mental illness, and none of my family members or friends have mental illness, so it’s not my problem.

You may have no mental illness in your family or friends. Maybe you have an aunt or an uncle who were a little “off” or seemed a little sad sometimes, and possibly your neighbor down the street may have some issues, but there are no mental health issues in the majority of your life. You are pretty sure everyone you know – at home, at work, and at school – are normal, mentally healthy, and well-adjusted. No signs of depression here!

Myth buster: Mental illness affects everyone

The mental health website of the U.S. government cites the following statistics from 2011:

  • One in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental health issue
  • One in ten young people experienced a period of major depression
  • One in 20 people in the U.S. lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression

Additionally, twice the number of people commits suicide in the United States (38,000) as are killed as a result of homicide annually. This is a staggering loss of life that will, at some point, affect you.

Powerful myth #4: Only women get depressed

While it is true that women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, the rate of male depression is climbing, as is the rate of male suicide. The image of the strong, silent, stoic man is pervasive in the American cultural landscape.

Myth buster: Encourage men with depression to seek treatment by meeting them where they are

Websites like Man Therapy are working to appeal to men who may be embarrassed or unlikely to seek treatment due to societal stigma. This site does reinforce gender stereotypes but does so in a way that is entertaining rather than demeaning. The humor of the site belies its serious mission: to get men talking about their mental health in a way that is non-threatening, informative, and useful. Because men may not display “typical” signs of depression, it is important to look for the following:

  • Anger or irritability
  • Lashing out (i.e., overreacting to something)
  • Increased use of substances (anything from alcohol to over-the-counter medicine to illegal drugs)
  • General lack of motivation

If you have a man in your life that you suspect may be struggling with mental health issues, it may be helpful to direct him to Man Therapy to start with. The idea that men don’t get depression is so deeply ingrained that simply confronting the problem head-on may not work. Sometimes a subtle approach is best, and men may feel more comfortable exploring their issues with the anonymity of an online site first. Reaching out to men who may be depressed is important; ninety percent of all suicides are due to depression, and men who reach the stage of attempting suicide are more likely to succeed in their attempt.

Powerful myth #5: Those in treatment for depression are weak. They can’t handle their own problems.

The stigma of weakness surrounding treatment for depression is strong. This is accompanied by the idea that taking a pill to solve your problems is a sign that you are not a capable man/woman/adult/human.

Myth buster: Seeking treatment for depression is the most powerful, brave action you can take

It takes courage to face depression, knowing that in working to get well you may have to confront some issues from your past. The majority of people who seek treatment for depression find help in a combination of talk therapy, medications, and complementary therapy (such as mindfulness meditation), and treatment is generally temporary and short-term. Many put off seeking treatment, not wanting to rely on prescription medications, but the truth is that prescriptions are often temporary and only one small part of a treatment plan.

What other myths about depression have you heard?

Image by rumpleteaser via Flickr

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