17 Mental Health Realities the Media Always Gets Wrong

7 minute read

By Christopher Brown

Mental health is a real hot button issue these days. It’s pervasive, mysterious and confusing – and it’s received a ton of media attention. Fortunately, you can learn everything you need to know about mental health with a search online.

Awareness is always good, especially when it feels as if you’re all alone. However, there’s also a whole lot of damaging misinformation floating around. Here are 17 facts about mental illness that don’t often find their way into the narrative.

It’s Not Always Easy to Access Professional Help

Oh… so you’re suffering from mental illness? You should just… go get help.

The thing is, for some, seeking help is easier said than done. Those living in rural communities often have very limited access to professional help, which means longer wait times or a lot of travel.

For those who have access to mental health professionals, costs can still be prohibitive. Psychiatrists can cost anywhere between $100 an hour to upwards of $500 an hour. This is fine for those of us with a benefits package that’ll foot a portion of the bill, but it’s not uncommon for a benefits package to sidestep psychiatric coverage altogether. Those without access to benefits are on the hook for the entire cost of the bill.

There is help out there (including many free mental health resources online), but accessing it can be a lot trickier than you’d think.

Medication Isn’t Always a Quick Fix

Primetime television is littered with pharmaceutical ads preaching cure-alls for a whole host of mood disorders. The truth is, while medication is helpful for many people, a simple little pill isn’t always the answer for everyone. Though more and more doctors are turning to medication, it might not be the best option for every person experiencing mental illness.

When it comes to treatment, it’s important to listen to your body, work with your healthcare professionals, and adjust accordingly. You may have to try several medications before you find one that works, pair medication with other treatments such as therapy, make lifestyle changes, or seek out alternative solutions.

Important Note:

Never change your dose or stop taking your medication without first discussing it with your doctor.

‘Once Ill, Always Ill’ Is Not the Case

Though it may sometimes feel like the pain is endless when you’re experiencing the effects of a mental illness, effective management of mental disorders is entirely possible!

Mental health professionals are tirelessly experimenting and discovering new ways to treat disorders like depression and anxiety. As a result, millions are able to recover and move forward.

Mental Illness Is Way More Common Than You Think

The mainstream media does a fantastic job of creating awareness and raising money for a variety of mental health initiatives. That said, the media does a poor job of explaining how pervasive mental health disorders truly are.

An estimated 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from of mental illness, and some estimate an even higher number in the US. It’s nearly guaranteed that even if you haven’t experienced some form of mental illness yourself, you know someone who has.

Mental Illness Isn’t Always Debilitating

Mental illness in movies and television is usually portrayed in the exact same way: A sad man or woman, glued to the couch, unable to work, and unwilling to do anything other than watch TV and wipe away the tears.

In reality, those experiencing mental illness often integrate into society relatively seamlessly. Some rarely miss a school or work day, and most certainly don’t “look” like they’re mentally ill. Be careful not to make assumptions about others’ experiences with mental illness.

‘Mentally Ill = Violent’ Is a Damaging Myth

The portrayal of mental illness in movies and TV can be pretty scary at times, too. Visions of school shootings, domestic violence, and terrorism come to mind.

In reality, multiple studies have shown that people who live with mental illness are no more prone to violence than anyone else. More than that, research suggests that those with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators.

‘You’re Just Born With It’ Is an Oversimplification

This is a gross oversimplification, commonly discussed whenever the topic of mental health pops up. Yes, some people do suffer from mental health disorders from a young age with no apparent cause, but typically mental illness comes on more slowly, over the course of a patient’s life.

While genetic predisposition likely does play a role in determining a person’s susceptibility to mental illness, contributing factors to its development include stress, bereavement, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, to name a few.

Suicide Attempts Are a Cry for Help… Which Is Exactly Why They Should Be Taken Seriously

“It was just a cry for help,” is a popular buzz-phrase that hints at a much deeper problem with society’s understanding of mental illness. Although most suicide attempts do not result in death, dismissing these attempts as “just another cry for help,” can prove fatal.

If you or someone that you know has contemplated suicide, it’s very important to treat these feelings with the seriousness they deserve and seek help from a professional.

It’s Not ‘Just a Phase’

Teenage angst has, and always will be, a driving plot device for popular movies, music and television shows. You know how the story goes: Girl is sad, girl spends a summer abroad, girl snaps out of her sadness and moves forward with her brand new, positive worldview.

This narrative works well for the purpose of entertainment, but unfortunately it has no basis in reality. Depression is an illness that affects people of all ages – children, teens, adults, and the elderly alike — and treating it generally requires a lot more than just a semester abroad. Counselling, exercise, medication… whatever helps you recover is what’s best.

Don’t Blame the Parents

They weren’t around enough, or they were around too much. It’s always the parents’ fault, right? I don’t mean to keep harping on the same thing, but this attitude is also a very dangerous oversimplification.

As discussed earlier, there are a ton of factors that contribute to the development of a mental health disorder. Biology, traumatic experience, neglect… both nature and nurture are the cause. Though a child’s family life can have a drastic impact on their adult development, there can also be a lot more factors at play.

So, please, give the parents a break. They could use it.

Addiction Is a Form of Mental Illness

Addiction is a choice, they say. Addiction is for the weak!

The truth is, drug or alcohol addiction, and all of the contributing factors that go into them, are as complex as the mental illnesses themselves. Addiction is often seen as a way untreated mentally ill people self-medicate. Addiction can also be considered a direct symptom of a mental illness, or an illness all its own.

Mental Illness Is Not Easy to Spot

Art imitates life, but it’s also exaggerated. Movies, TV and novels typically dramatize the symptoms of common mental illnesses. They make the symptoms of mental illness seem obvious; drastic mood swings, erratic and dangerous behavior, and extreme social isolation are almost always shown.

But, in reality, the telltale signs of a mental health disorder can be far subtler, especially in the early stages. Common symptoms include unusual behavior, apathy, and feeling disconnected to name a few. There are plenty of resources available on the internet detailing the common symptoms of mental illness if you want a better idea of what to look for.

It’s Not a Modern Problem

Increased coverage of mental illness in the mainstream media is still pretty new. So, that means mental illness is also pretty new, right? Not even a little bit.

Mental illness is part of the human experience and has been for centuries, all over the globe. Descriptions of it show up everywhere from the ancient Hindu scriptures of India to the musings of Socrates. Mental illness is decidedly not a new problem or one caused by the trappings of modern life. It’s just that nowadays, we’re a lot more open about it.

No, the Mentally Ill Are Not ‘Faking It’

I’ll be the first to admit that the perception of mental illness has come a very, very long way in a very, very short period of time. Simply talking about it on a global scale has done wonders for those who live with mental illness. Still though, the stigma exists.

Mental illness is real illness involving real, measurable physical changes in the brain. Sure, it’s less straightforward to understand and treat than something like a heart condition or a degenerative bone disease, but it can be just as serious and just as debilitating. It’s important to be patient, supportive and compassionate when the subject of mental illness comes up.

Mental Illness Can Be Fatal, But Doesn’t It Have to Be

This one goes hand in hand with the “once you’re sick, you’re sick,” mindset. Yes, mental illness can lead to a variety of different fatal outcomes such as suicide and addiction-related deaths, but it’s important to recognize the varying degrees of mental illnesses and the ways in which new research into mental illness is constantly improving treatment outcomes. No two experiences are exactly alike and there is always hope.

Remember, the stories that make the 6 o’clock news don’t necessarily reflect the reality of most people living with mental illness. For every sad or sensational story, there are millions of happy ones you don’t see.

It’s Not ‘Only in Your Mind’

Mental illness alters your perception of the world; that much is true. But mental illness can also manifest itself physically in a number of different ways. High blood pressure, weight fluctuations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, low sex drive, depleted energy levels and more can all come along with mental illness – not to mention the physical changes in the brain that accompany these diseases. Mental illness can be psychological and physical.

You Are Not Alone

Even though some days it may feel that way, you may be surprised by the help people around you are ready to offer if they know you’re experiencing mental illness. Don’t be afraid to seek out accurate medical information on the internet and reach out to a friend, a family member, or a professional when you need to. And, if you suspect someone you know is experiencing mental illness, please don’t hesitate to offer your support and help them seek treatment when they’re ready.

Important Note:

If you believe you or someone you know is in immediate danger due to a mental health crisis, seek help immediately by calling 911 or a suicide hotline or by going to a hospital. Familiarize yourself with the risk factors for suicide and take action if you believe you or someone else is at risk.

The National Institute of Mental Health

Christopher Brown