Busting myths about addiction and mental illness

September 08, 2017 / Naudia Pickens, MD, MPH

Busting myths about addiction and mental illness

People battling mental illness and substance misuse disorder have also had to deal with the misperception that seeking help is weak or abnormal. Thankfully, there is more acceptance all the time, and unfair stereotypes like these are changing—but we still have a ways to go. By clearing up myths and stigmas about mental illness and addiction, we hope to improve understanding and foster a healing environment for those who need assistance.

Myth 1: Mental health issues and addictions aren’t normal or common.
Quite the opposite: these conditions are normal and so common, you probably know someone who’s facing them—or deal with them yourself. According to the World Health Organization, 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide. In the U.S., the National Institute of Mental Health has indicated that 40 million adults experience anxiety.
Substance misuse is so common, the U.S. Surgeon General reports that one in seven Americans face addiction.

Myth 2: Addiction and mental illness are just in your head.
On the contrary, mental illness is recognized as the result of changes in brain chemistry. It is a medical condition—which is why psychiatrists go to medical school to train for four more years after earning an MD, to learn all about the science of mental illness.
As for alcoholism and addiction, in 2016, the Surgeon General’s report declared addiction a disease centered in the brain, “a chronic illness that must be treated with skill, urgency and compassion.”

Myth 3: It’s not worth the embarrassment to treat these problems.
The shame associated with mental health concerns contributes to more than half of those in need not getting treatment. Only 10% of people with substance misuse disorders get help. But if untreated, the situation is likely to deteriorate further—rapidly. For example, someone with just a few symptoms of depression may soon experience a full range of problems that require more intensive treatment, and then face a harder road to recovery. A person experiencing a drug/alcohol problem who tries to stop on his or her own may not succeed then get caught in a downward spiral of self-loathing and worsening drug abuse. But no one has to suffer alone. There is help, relief, rehabilitation—and hope.

Here are some mental health resources to help. If you or someone you know is unable to stop drinking or using drugs, contact aa.org for Alcoholics Anonymous or na.org for Narcotics Anonymous, talk to your primary care provider or call your health insurance company.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health concern, there are many kinds of treatments available. An excellent place to start is the Mental Health America website