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Myths and facts about mental illness

MY LAST article on ?Talking about mental illness to kids? aroused the curiosity of many readers. There were several questions ranging from the stigma surrounding mental illnesses to specific ailments. People with a mental illness need the same understanding and support given to people with a physical illness.

india Updated: Mar 14, 2006 15:58 IST
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MY LAST article on ‘Talking about mental illness to kids’ aroused the curiosity of many readers. There were several questions ranging from the stigma surrounding mental illnesses to specific ailments. People with a mental illness need the same understanding and support given to people with a physical illness.

A mental illness is not different - it is not an illness for which anyone should be blamed (parents usually take the blame on themselves). Also, it is rarely possible for someone with a mental illness to make the symptoms go away just by strength of will (several people believe that people with mental illness have low willpower). To suggest this is not helpful in any way.

Some facts about mental illness
Did you know that 10 percent of the population has mental illnesses? About 10 percent of this 10 percent have severe mental illnesses. And 10 percent of the severe cases need hospitalization. That makes for a lot of people in our country having

illnesses of the mind.
1 ‘Mental illness’ is a general term that refers to a group of illnesses, in the same way that heart disease refers to a group of illnesses affecting the heart.

l Episodes of a mental illness can come and go in periods through people’s lives.

l Some people experience their illness only once and fully recover. For others, it recurs throughout their lives.

l Most mental illnesses can be effectively treated.

l Though we know that many mental illnesses are caused by a physical dysfunction of the brain, we do not know exactly what
triggers this.

l Stress may trigger some mental illnesses or may prolong episodes.

l Stress can also result when a person develops a mental illness.

l People who have a mental illness often suffer a great deal. They can be disturbed and frightened by their illness.

l Not only do they and their families have to cope with an illness that can radically alter their lives, they often experience rejection and discrimination.

Some questions and answers
Q: Are mental illnesses a form of intellectual disability or brain damage?
A: No. They are illnesses just like any other: heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. It is amazing that the traditions of flowers, sympathy and support provided to people with a physical illness are often denied to those with a mental illness.

Q: Are mental illnesses incurable and lifelong?
A: No. When treated appropriately and early, many people recover fully. A mental illness is like many physical illnesses which require on-going treatment (such as diabetes and heart disease), but which can be managed so that the individual can participate in everyday life. A mental illness can come and go in people’s lives. Psychotic disorders are more difficult to deal with than non-psychotic disorders. Some people have only one episode and recover completely. For others, it recurs throughout their lives and requires on-going treatment. Though some people become disabled as a result of a chronic mental illness, many who experience even major mental illnesses manage to live full and productive lives.

Q: Are people born with a mental illness?
A: The causes of mental illnesses are unclear. A predisposition to some mental illnesses can run in families. Many other factors can contribute to the onset of a mental illness in people with a predisposition such as stress, bereavement, relationship breakdown, child abuse, unemployment, social isolation and times of accidents and life threatening illness.

Q: Can anyone develop a mental illness?
A: Yes. In fact, even psychologists and psychiatrists can develop mental disorders. Everyone is vulnerable to mental health concerns. Many people feel more comfortable with the notion of having a breakdown than the notion of having a mental illness. Reluctance to talk openly about mental illnesses is a barrier to seeking early treatment. To many, explaining away a mental illness as a nervous breakdown is preferable to being branded ‘mentally ill’.

Q: Are people with a mental illness usually dangerous?
A: No. In fact, this false perception underlies some of the most damaging stereotypes. People with a mental illness are seldom dangerous. Even people with the most severe mental illness are rarely dangerous when receiving appropriate treatment.

l Bring mental illness into the open and think about it like other illnesses or conditions.

l Educate the community to overcome attitudes based on misconceptions.

l Promote mental health by nourishing healthy attitudes through early childhood and adult life, and learn ways to deal with
trauma in relationships, situations and events.

l Assist friends and relatives with a mental illness to obtain care and treatment.

l Talk about mental illnesses openly with everyone you meet - it is surprising how many people are affected by mental
illness, but have been too afraid of rejection to discuss it openly.

l Address discrimination in every area of life, including employment and education.

(The author is a psychologist and professor of psychology at BSSS. He can be contacted at drvinaymishra@rediffmail.com)

First Published: Mar 14, 2006 15:58 IST