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October 19, 2019

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Here are just a few things people get wrong about mental illness

May is just around the corner, when we wear green to mark Mental Health Awareness Month and educate the public. My education program consists of two words: stereotypes hurt. Here are a few.

People with mental illness are dangerous and violent.

Thanks in part to the news media, many people think “mental illness” is synonymous with “mass shooting.”

A Mother Jones article on the topic in 2015 cited research stating that 63 percent of respondents blamed a deficient mental health care system as the prime reason for America’s incessant gun massacres, while 23 percent pointed to weak gun regulations.

The truth is, most mentally ill people who have a firearm are more prone to use it on themselves, and less than 3 percent of mass shootings are committed by someone with a mental illness.

An expert on mass shootings explained to me why the media focuses on a shooter’s mental health without interviewing mental health experts. It made sense.

“The public wants quick explanations as to why someone would do something so horrific that they, themselves, wouldn’t do. Mental illness can explain it.”

People with mental illness make bad parents.

Even members of my immediate family have made hurtful comments such as, “You’re not planning on having children, are you?” Or even, “You’re not mother material.” People with mental illness often go through volatile periods before they are properly diagnosed and get the right treatment. Family members like to recall those moments a lot, even after they’ve long disappeared. But people change. There are plenty of good parents who live with a mental illness or another kind of illness, and plenty of bad ones who don’t.

People with mental illness can control their symptoms.

I recall that as a teenager, when I’d have major emotional meltdowns that were way out of proportion to what triggered them, my father remained convinced that if I could control my emotions 95 percent of the time, I should be able to the rest of the time. He was always perplexed. These days more parents are educated about these issues. They understand that bipolar disorder is dysfunction of the brain’s emotion regulation.

Most of us with mental illness who successfully control our symptoms take medication. But even that isn’t a cure-all. At best, medications reduce the symptoms and the amount and length of times when emotions go awry.

People with mental illness have little hope for recovery.

There’s lots of hope for recovery. Talk to pop star Demi Lovato about her bipolar illness. OK, she has an entire management team running her life, and she’s not poor, two things that can affect someone’s treatment success. But she has accepted her diagnosis, as have many of us, and that’s a huge predictor of success. P.S.: It would be easier on everyone if the pharmaceutical companies reduced their medication prices and if Medicaid paid psychiatrists the same hourly rate ($300) as private insurance does, so more doctors would accept Medicaid clients. Recovery is not always about the patient.

People who experience mental illnesses can’t work.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate among professions. In fact, many mentally ill employees excel at jobs requiring lots of talking and an ever-changing environment. I find that, besides medication and lots of TLC, working is perhaps the best antidote to an unquiet mind. It’s social and provides routine, structure, a chance to excel and a place to go every day. I read that bored retirees are the most serious candidates for depression.

Being bipolar and dealing with depression certainly hasn’t stopped people from becoming outgoing politicians, lobbyists, trial attorneys and entertainers. They don’t shy away from being onstage or in the limelight or being the center of attention. And we can be loud. I swear, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who has bipolar disorder, practically yells when he speaks. But maybe he’s just being passionate. Is that wrong?

Kim Palchikoff is studying social work at UNR and writes about mental health. Her Twitter handle is @NVmindsmatter.

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