Guest Columns

MARES: WE SHOULD NOT BE AFRAID OR ASHAMED

Dispelling myths about mental health is important — but it’s just the beginning

The Colorado Statesman

The terms mental health and mental illness are used often by the press and in other media. For most people those terms conjure a mix of different images and ideas. For some of us, the words are associated with intense feelings and personal experiences. Unfortunately, many people associate incorrect and hurtful ideas with mental health. Journalists, pundits, public officials and ordinary folks just talking about the news have perpetuated myths about what mental health means without even realizing it.

For the first installment in a series of monthly columns in The Colorado Statesman from Mental Health America of Colorado (MHAC), the state’s oldest and largest mental health advocacy organization, let’s do some myth-busting. Below are three commonly held, yet totally untrue beliefs about mental health, and the facts that prove them wrong.

MYTH: Mental illnesses are rare conditions that affect a small number of people.

FACT: Mental health conditions are the most common chronic health conditions in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), at least one in four Americans in any given year needs help to treat a mental health condition, and one in two will need help over the course of their lifetime. In Colorado, our numbers are actually higher than the national average. At least one in three Coloradans experience mental health problems each year, and we have one of the highest suicide rates in the country. More people under the age of 35 die from suicide in Colorado than the next eight leading causes of death combined. This is what we know for sure, but because of the stigma associated with mental illness many people will never report problems to their doctor or reach out to others for help.

MYTH: Scientists don’t understand what causes mental illness, making it impossible to treat.

FACT: All mental health disorders are treatable, and most are even preventable. Psychologists, neurologists and medical researchers have discovered that our mental health, like other aspects of our overall physical health, is not predetermined by our heredity. Environmental factors — everything from the air we breathe to how we are treated by society — influence our health throughout our lifespan. If a person has adverse experiences as a child such as abuse, neglect, poor nutrition, lack of education, etc., then that person might develop anxiety disorder, clinical depression or other mental health conditions as a result. A common saying in the public health community is “your zip code is more important to your health than your genetic code.” Mental health IS health, it doesn’t belong to a separate category. The trauma of negative environmental factors affects our emotions and behavior, and science shows that trauma is the source of the vast majority of common mental health problems.

MYTH: People with mental illness are dangerous and society needs to be protected from them.

FACT: People with mental health conditions are no more likely to commit acts of violence against others than people who do not have mental health conditions. A nationwide study by NIMH shows that only 4 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with a psychiatric diagnosis. The study also showed that people with mental illness are 11 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population. The heartbreaking tragedies of mass shootings and other high-profile crimes are often linked to mental illness by members of the news media. Surely we need to address the danger that people with very serious mental illnesses pose to themselves and others — law enforcement officers and medical professionals do that on a daily basis — but that is not the face of mental health. There is not a family in Colorado or America that hasn’t experienced mental health problems and their repercussions. Mental health is part of all of us, every day of our lives, and is never something of which we should be afraid or ashamed.

At MHAC we have been educating, advocating and serving for 60 years. Our experience has shown us that myths can be persistent but they cannot last forever. With the strength of understanding and compassion we have moved beyond the time when people with mental illnesses were locked away in state hospitals, ignored and forgotten. We still have a long way to go, and dispelling myths is an important part of that journey.

If you or someone you know need help with a mental health crisis call Metro Crisis Services at 888-885-1222.

Don Mares, President & CEO of Mental Health America of Colorado, is a family member of an individual with a mental health condition. Before joining MHAC Don was a lawyer, Colorado state senator, Denver City Auditor, and the Director of the Colorado Department of Employment & Labor.