I'll never forget the fear I had entering the seventh grade.
At my school, the change from sixth grade to seventh was the biggest jump. In sixth grade, students had the same teacher in the same classroom all day with occasional breaks for activity periods. But starting in seventh grade, you moved to different teachers in different classrooms. Each middle school teacher had a reputation, and none scared me more than my science teacher. Older students told me that she was mean and “bipolar.” I didn't know what that meant, but it didn't sound good.
As it becomes more and more common to talk about mental health, the way that we talk about certain things has been misconstrued. For instance, my seventh-grade science teacher was incorrectly diagnosed by students as bipolar because she had mood swings. If having mood swings was the only requirement for bipolar disorder, I'm pretty sure you could diagnose every seventh grade teacher in the world with it.
So, let's look at some common misconceptions about mental health.
Some people believe that you are either mentally healthy or unhealthy. It's one or the other, black or white. Our mental health, however, is more complex than that. Think of your physical health. If you have a cold, would you describe yourself as unhealthy? Maybe for the period while the illness is present, but once it goes away, you would say you're feeling better. Similarly, people with mental health issues go through periods when they are feeling better and other times when they are feeling worse. There are times when someone's depression seems really manageable and under control and other times when it might feel soul crushing.
Second, just because someone has a mental health issue doesn't mean that they are violent. This is especially relevant during this time in our nation. It seems after every major shooting we try to figure out why it happened, and often times mental health is one of the key factors we look at. A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association of crimes committed by people with mental health issues found that only 7.5% of those crimes were related to their mental illness.
All types of people commit crimes for all types of reasons. Even if someone has a mental health issue and happens to commit a crime, the majority of the time it isn't because of their mental illness.
Another common misconception deals with insane asylums. A lot of people jokingly mention that they don't want to talk about some of their thoughts out of fear that they might get sent to an inpatient facility. (I probably hear some joke about how they might get sent to Whitfield once a week.)
While most people are joking when they mention going to the "loony bin," it is important to know that the way that mental health issues are treated has changed radically in the last 50 years. Insane asylums originally were used to protect people from themselves and from harming others, which probably contributed to our stereotypes of seeing the mentally ill as dangerous today.
But since the introduction of medicines like antidepressants, the rate of people who have been institutionalized has dropped radically. As our understanding of mental illnesses has advanced, rates of institutionalization have dropped because now we are able to more effectively treat people with mental health issues.
Finally, some people view going to counseling as a sign of defeat. They think that it's only for people who can't get their lives together or are at the "end of the road." These people think that counseling is only for those people whose lives are out of control.
Counseling, however, is for everyone and anyone. It's for the person who is struggling with depression, grieving the loss of a loved one, dealing with anxiety or having a hard time navigating their life. Instead of seeing someone as weak, I view anyone who goes to counseling as brave.
People who go to counseling are willing to recognize their need for help and are able to be vulnerable about their lives. Rather than putting on the front that everything is fine, they are able to acknowledge that things aren't perfect. And because of their willingness to address their issues, they are often able to work through them. That isn't admitting defeat; rather, it's being courageous.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to firstname.lastname@example.org.