FIVE MYTHS ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH

STORY / DR WENDY VAN ZUIJLEN

What comes to your mind
when you hear the words ‘mental health’?

These two words may trigger a range of feelings, memories, or images for you– not all of which may be positive. You may even think of someone that is struggling with a mental health issue right now.

Sadly, there are many myths about mental health. The good news is that learning the facts can help dispel these misnomers – so get ready to learn the truth and read on.

MYTH: Mental health issues are rare

A common myth is that mental health issues are rare in Australia. But, unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite, according to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.

For this survey, researchers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics interviewed about 8,800 Australians aged between 16 and 85 years. In a personal interview, they asked subjects about their age, gender and their social network. They also asked about their physical and mental health.

After analysing all the data, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that almost half of Australians in this age group might experience some kind of mental health issue at some point in their life.

MYTH: All mental health issues are the same

Not all mental health issues are the same. Mental health issues are diagnosed in different types and degrees of severity.

“Everyone has their own unique experience of distress, some more severe than others at certain times in their life,” explained Principal Psychologist at Fostering Hope Psychology, Emily May.

Some of the major types of mental health issues are depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder and eating disorders. In Australia, the most common health issues are anxiety and depression, according to The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.

MYTH: You cannot COMBAT (instead of avoid) mental health symptoms

Although mental health issues are not always avoidable, there are ways to look after your mental health and wellbeing.

For instance, doing physical exercise can improve someone’s mood, increase concentration and promote feelings of joy and happiness, said May.

Another way to maintain positive mental health can be by surrounding yourself with supportive people. “So, having people around you, who value you and to who you can reach out to,” May explained.

“Therapy can also be a great option for people who are going through a stressful period in their life, because it gives someone the set of tools to reframe their experience, understand what triggers their stress, and learn the specific techniques that work for them to manage their stress. This way it does not manifest into something that can cause chronic mental health issues,” May said.

MYTH: Only adults have mental health issues

Another commonly held idea is that only adults can have a mental health issue. However, children can also struggle with their mental health.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia conducted a national study to examine the mental health and well-being of Australian children aged between four and 17 years. This study was recently published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

During one year, the researchers interviewed more than 6,300 families from across Australia. In each of these households, they asked parents or carers to answer the questions. Children between 11 and 17 years also filled in the questionnaire themselves.

In these face-to-face interviews, the research team asked them questions related to their physical health, mental health, and behaviour.

Sadly, the researchers reported that almost one in seven of these children were struggling with a mental health issue in the previous 12 months. In fact, the most common type of mental health issues in these children were attention deficit disorder and anxiety disorders.

Mental health issues in young people can be connected with the fact that they are going through a particular developmental phase. This means that they feel their emotions really strongly while they have not yet developed the skills that allow them to manage them, explained May.

“I work a lot with young people to support them in that. But, I also work with parents for them to be able to be a supporting person in the life of their child,” said May.

MYTH: A mental health issue is a sign of weakness

A big misconception is that mental health issues are a sign of weakness. However, mental health issues are not a result of personal weakness.
The cause of a mental health issue is often a combination of genetic and environmental factors, said May. “Both of these two factors interact with each other to generate somebody’s experiences and mental health”.

For some people, highly stressful environments can trigger a lot of anxiety. Other people might feel stressed out by certain types of career choices. A traumatic experience is another factor that can have a profound impact on someone’s mental health.

“Traumatic life experiences can disrupt our sense of well-being, our capacity to manage our emotions and the way we are able to build and maintain relationships. Therapy can be very helpful for people who have a history of trauma because it can transform their experience and achieve greater emotional stability and improved relationships,” May advised.

Where to go for help

If you feel that a mental health issue is affecting your life, remember effective treatments are available. The sooner you seek professional support, the better.
Talk to your GP or a mental health professional. This can be either a psychologist, psychiatrist, mental health nurse, certified counsellor or a mental health social worker. They can help you by talking through issues that you may be experiencing and your health professional may be able to help you find solutions that are specifically tailored to you and your experience.

REFERENCES

1. Slade T, et al., 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: methods and key findings. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2009; 43594-605.

2. Lawrence D, et al. Key Findings from the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2016; 876-886.