9 Myths & Misconceptions About Mental Illness

Are mentally ill people violent? Can mental illness be overcome through willpower? Is addiction a choice? This post addresses some of the myths and misconceptions about mental illness.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

In this post, I’ll address some of the myths and misconceptions about mental disorders. There continues to be stigma attached to mental illness; and the media is partly to blame. Every time (yet another) mass shooting occurs, the media attributes the act of violence to mental illness. This message is repeated by various news sources and then spread through social media.

Acts of senseless violence are for sure a “sickness,” but they’re not criteria for a diagnosable mental disorder. It’s not fair to compare violent criminals to individuals who struggle with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.

Mental illness misconceptions run rampant, even within the healthcare professional field. For example, I know a surgeon who believes mental illness isn’t real and a neurologist who uses words like “crazy” and “retarded.” I came across a substance abuse counselor (on Facebook) who believes addiction is a moral failing. I know a social worker who believes that severely mentally ill individuals are more likely to be violent.



Ignorance is at the root of stigma.
 The more you know, the less you fear, and the less you’ll stigmatize. Read on to learn about myth versus fact.


9 Myths & Misconceptions About Mental Illness

1. Bad parenting causes mental illness.

Myth! Even today, there is no single identified cause when it comes to mental illness. Instead, there are multiple risk factors that contribute to mental disorders. The biggest risk factor is genetics. Genes frequently determine whether or not a person develops schizophrenia, depression, substance use disorder, etc. Physiological factors (such as abnormalities in the brain) are a second risk factor.

Environmental factors, such as fetal exposure to a toxin or childhood abuse, are a third risk factor. Childhood abuse undoubtedly falls into the “bad parenting” category, but as a standalone, it can’t cause mental illness.

It’s more likely that a combination of risk factors will lead to the development of a mental disorder.

2. Mental illness is not a medical disease.

Myth! Heart disease affects the heart. Colon cancer affects the colon. Autoimmune disorders affect the immune system. Brain disorders (i.e. mental illness, addiction) affect the brain.

You can’t “see” mental health symptoms the way you can see physical health symptoms, but mental illness is without a doubt physiological in nature.

Like other organs, the brain can become diseased, and it manifests as symptoms of mental illness. You can’t “see” mental health symptoms the way you can see physical health symptoms, but mental illness is without a doubt physiological in nature.

3. All sociopaths are dangerous.

The term “sociopath” (or psychopath) is frequently associated with serial killers. The reality is that you probably know a sociopath and he/she isn’t a murderer.

In fact, “sociopathy” and “psychopathy” are no longer recognized diagnoses in the mental health world due to negative connotations. The correct term is “antisocial personality disorder” (ASPD), a mental illness characterized by an ongoing disregard for and violation of the rights of others. An individual with ASPD may also be exceptionally charismatic. (Some of the most charming and engaging clients I’ve ever worked with had ASPD.)

However, research indicates that an individual with ASPD is more likely to become involved in criminal activity,to have a substance use disorder, and to be aggressive; about 50% of individuals with ASPD have some sort of criminal record. While it’s a misconception to say all individuals with ASPD are dangerous, the link between ASPD and crime is not unfounded.

4. Mental illness can be overcome with willpower.

This is 100% myth and a huge pet peeve of mine. It goes hand-in-hand with the belief that mental illness is not a “real” medical condition. A mental disorder typically requires treatment, such as medication and therapy, and ongoing illness management. 

All the willpower in the world won’t help someone “overcome” heart disease. And it doesn’t work that way with mental illness either.

5. Addiction is a choice.

Substance use disorder is no more of a choice than diabetes or cancer. Like most diseases, addiction develops when a combination of genetic, physiological, and environmental factors are present. Lifestyle choices also play a role. Unfortunately, the myth that addiction is a moral failing persists.

An individual who struggles with addiction receives more blame than someone with a heart condition, even though lifestyle choices heavily impact both disorders. I’ve even heard it said that addicts who overdose shouldn’t be revived because it was their “choice” to use. If that’s the logic, then should we stop providing life saving care to someone who’s having a heart attack or to a smoker with lung cancer? Of course not. At times, we all make poor decisions. For someone with a predisposition for addiction, the choice to drink may lead to alcohol use disorder. For the person with a predisposition for diabetes, eating an unhealthy diet or living a sedentary lifestyle will result in consequences.

Furthermore, once a person develops a substance use disorder, physiological and structural changes in the brain dissolve the element of choice. The brain misinterprets a craving for drugs or alcohol. (Remember the last time you experienced extreme thirst? That’s what it’s like to be addicted to something.)

Having a substance use disorder is miserable, lonely, and shameful. No one would choose that.

6. People with mental illness are violent.

A person with mental illness is no more likely to be violent than someone in the general population. In fact, acts of violence are not diagnostic criteria for any of the known mental disorders.

If I had to choose someone to hold a loaded gun, I’d pick the person with schizophrenia over someone who’s prone to anger or has poor self-control.

I work with clients who hear “command” voices (auditory hallucinations that tell them to harm or kill); yet I’ve never felt unsafe. In my experience, it’s uncommon for an individual to obey the voices. If I had to choose someone to hold a loaded gun, I’d pick the person with schizophrenia over someone who’s prone to anger or has poor self-control.

While the media would have us believe that mental illness is at the root of every mass shooting, that isn’t the case. (Not to say that mental illness can’t play a role, but it’s not always the trigger.) The biggest risk factor for violence is a history of violence, especially domestic violence, or crime.

Regarding violence, what’s true is that individuals with mental illness are more likely to die by suicide. Persons with schizophrenia have higher rates of suicide than the general population. Depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder are also linked to suicide.

Don’t confuse mental illness with a lack of morals.

A mental disorder is a medical condition; having weak morals is a personality trait, and while it seems mentally sick, it’s not fair to compare a lack of morals to a condition like depression or anxiety.

7. Mental illness is the same thing as mental retardation.

I’m friends with a nurse who didn’t even know the difference (until I pointed it out). A person with a mental illness may seem less intelligent due to various factors, but mental illness is not comparable to mental retardation. Today, we refer to mental retardation as intellectual disability (due to the negative connotations attached to the word “retarded”).

A person with an intellectual disability (ID) struggles to understand, comprehend, and/or form memories. A person with mental illness, on the other hand, may have superior intelligence, but could seem “slow” due to distractions brought on by their illness. (For example, it’s difficult to focus on a conversation when you’re having racing thoughts or hearing voices.)

8. A person with schizophrenia has multiple personalities.

Nope; total myth. In fact, multiple personality disorder (MPD) doesn’t exist (technically). What was formally known as MPD in the DSM-IV TR (the previous version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) is now termed disassociative identity disorder [DID]. A person with DID has at least two distinct personality “states” and suffers from gaps in memory. DID is incredibly rare.

A person with schizophrenia, on the other hand, has one personality state. However, he/she may hear voices that take on distinct identities.

In addition to auditory hallucinations, someone with schizophrenia may experience visual hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts, cognitive deficits, and/or what’s referred to as “negative” symptoms. (A negative symptom is a lack of something that’s typically present in someone without schizophrenia. For example, a person with schizophrenia may be socially withdrawn or he/she may seem very “flat” [without emotion]).

9. Alcohol makes you depressed because it’s a depressant.

Yes, alcohol is a depressant; but as a “depressant,” it depresses your central nervous system, leading to slurred speech, trouble with coordination, etc. The “depressant” effects of alcohol are unrelated to clinical depression.

However, heavy alcohol use is associated with depression and other mental disorders. Someone who is struggling with depression or anxiety may drink as a way to self-medicate. Alternatively, someone with an alcohol use disorder may develop depression, as alcohol upsets the chemical balance in the brain. The lifestyle of someone with alcohol use disorder may also lead to intense guilt, shame, and/or hopelessness, which can in turn lead to depression.


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What Counseling Taught Me (Part Two)

Learn to be more effective in your personal and professional life! This is the second installment of how counseling has led to a better understanding of people. Working with addiction and mental illness has gifted me with the capacity to better recognize why people do what they do, which in turn enhances how I relate to others.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

This is the second installment of life lessons I learned through counseling others. Counseling has led me to a better understanding of humanity and myself. (In Part One, I discussed life lessons on calmness, silence, active listening, partial truths, and hidden agendas.)

Working with addiction and mental illness has gifted me with the capacity to better recognize why people do what they do, which in turn enhances how I relate to others. As a result, I’m more effective in my personal and professional life. I have a sense of peace and “okayness” in the world.

One thing I hadn’t previously considered was brought up by Quora user and mental health professional, G. Bernard (MA Counseling); he shared that counseling revealed the truth about change. “It has really reinforced that idea that people who want change will work harder to achieve it; those who are forced (legally, by parents, spouse etc.) probably won’t.” I agree with this 100%. People can’t be forced into change; and when they are, their efforts lack fortitude and it doesn’t last. Those who are internally motivated will fight for change, making it worthwhile and enduring.

Here are additional truths and life lessons I gained through my counseling career.

What counseling has taught me (the second installment of life lessons):

1. A new perspective

The DSM – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the “Bible” for mental health professionals) – uncovered a whole new world for me. Sure, I was familiar with mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, and anxiety before grad school. I took Abnormal Psych in college and even before that, I’d read books on schizophrenia, eating disorders, and other mental disorders. (Guess who did their middle school science project on schizophrenia? Me!) But my fleeting knowledge was laughable compared to what I found in the DSM; it provided me with information on every single diagnosable mental disorder. When I started working with clients, I was able to see how mental illness manifests in real life.

The more I learned (and saw), the more I was able to make sense of behaviors. Consequently, this led to me looking back on people I’ve encountered throughout the years. I realized how many of them had been struggling with a mental illness. (At the time, I probably just thought they were just a jerk, or acting inconsiderately.)

I also became more aware of the prevalence of severe mental illness and the way it presents in society. This led to increased tolerance and patience regarding behaviors I’d previous found annoying; I learned to recognize them for what they were.

Mental illness can easily be interpreted as something it’s not. By having an awareness, I’m more compassionate. Instead of judging, I observe. Someone who seems snobby may have social anxiety. That coworker who calls out sick every Monday may be struggling with addiction. A friend who never wants to go out anymore could be depressed.

Mental illness is everywhere if you know what to look for. I strive to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, which is better for my mental health.

2. Don’t give money to the homeless

I worked with a client at a residential program who had an amazing talent for creating clever signs. He’d use markers to write his message (“Will dance for food!”) on a piece of cardboard before grabbing his pail to hit the streets. He didn’t need the money; he received government benefits (funded by taxpayers). The money he earned panhandling funded his K2 habit or the occasional beer.

Many of the “homeless” people you meet are not homeless; they’re con men (or women) who make a profit on your sympathy. Most are either addicted to drugs/alcohol and/or severely mentally ill; they need treatment, not the crinkled dollar bill in your pocket. Giving your spare change isn’t helping that person. Instead, offer to buy a meal, give them a pair of socks, or hand them a bottle of water.

3. Telling someone what to do is not helpful

Giving advice rarely leads to lasting change.

There are a few different reasons why advice, no matter how well-meaning, isn’t helpful. Firstly, it doesn’t account for the person’s full experience or struggle; it could seem ignorant or insensitive. (For example, “Why don’t you just get a divorce?” is not helpful to a woman struggling with her husband’s infidelity; the problem is more complex than just getting a divorce. Children could be involved. Maybe she’s financially dependent on her husband. Maybe she’s still in love with him. Or maybe it’s against her religious beliefs.)

Advice also robs a person of the ability to solve their own problem. We need to learn to find solutions in life in order to grow and to be effective. If someone is always told what to do, they’re not going to learn to function independently.

Lastly, if advice is taken, and it works, the credit goes to the advice giver, not the taker. The results are less meaningful. Alternatively, if advice is taken and it doesn’t work, it becomes the advice giver’s fault. Advice deprives a person of being able to take full ownership of their actions.

If you own your decision and fail, the blame falls on you (helping you to grow as a person) or if you succeed, the triumph is yours alone. Either way, you’re better off finding your own solutions; this allows you to feel capable and you’ll become better at solving problems in the future.

4. The value of transparency and honesty

People like to know what’s happening and what to expect. I get better reactions from clients when I explain why I’m doing or saying what I am. I’m honest, and when I can’t be (or believe it would be inappropriate to do so), I tell clients exactly that. For example, if a client asks about my religion, I’d let them know I don’t feel comfortable sharing personal aspects of my life.

Personally, I prefer the company of others who are straightforward. I don’t like having to guess if someone is upset with me. I don’t like it when someone is nice to my face, but gossips when I’m not around. Those types of games are played by people who are insecure or who are attempting to manipulate you. Life is complicated enough. With me, you’ll know if your fly is down, and if you ask for my opinion, you’ll get it. (There’s much to be said for tact though!) Gentle truths are worth more than flattery. 

5. You can’t demand respect

It’s something that’s earned through words and actions, not freely given. Forced respect is not true respect; it’s fear or deception. And while I believe in treating everyone with respect, I don’t truly respect someone until I know what kind of person they are.

Furthermore, I’ve learned that if someone chooses to disrespect me, it’s not a threat. Respect is powerful, but disrespect? Feeble and pathetic. If someone is disrespectful, it won’t harm you or make you less of a person (unless you give it that control).

Throughout my career, I’ve been disrespected on many, many occasions by clients who don’t want to be in treatment (and even by colleagues with differing opinions). But my sense of self-worth is not dependent on how others treat me. As a result, disrespect from angry clients (or rude salespersons or drivers who cut me off, etc.) doesn’t faze me.


In sum, being a counselor is life-changing. I imagine many professions are to a degree, but I can’t picture any other job leading to such a deep understanding of humanity. Entering the mental health field is like having horrible vision and then finally getting glasses (except it happens over the course of years). I have an enhanced awareness of who I am along with an unforeseen sense of serenity. 

Every single client who’s shared a piece of their story has contributed to my awareness (and to my own personal growth), and I owe them gratitude for the life lessons I received. I’m more cautious in life, yes, but I’m also more compassionate. Instead of having high expectations, I have high hopes. I don’t attempt to control things I have no control over; and I don’t get angry over the decisions, views, or actions of others. Instead, I channel my energy into something more productive; I’m passionate and I’m an advocate. My beauty pageant answer to the stereotypical question is not “world peace”; it’s for everyone to have a deeper understanding of each other.

What life lessons have you learned in your career? Please share in a comment!