Debunking mental health misconceptions

Ann Claw anecdotally describes mental health misconceptions in her office at the Flagstaff Holistic Spa and Wellness Center, Feb. 9.

Despite the media’s help in breaking down some of the stigmas surrounding mental health issues, obtaining correct information can be difficult. Local experts help provide the correct information to the community so that mental health is better understood.

Bipolar disorder, clinical depression and anxiety disorder are all forms of mental illness. While each of these comes with its own set of challenges, it is not impossible to live with mental illness. Sophomore Stephanie Salas explained what she has been learning in her classes.

“There is no normal in society but society makes a normal and that doesn’t exist,” Salas said. “We have it drilled into our minds that you have to meet certain criteria in order for you to be normal.”

Mental health can be especially difficult to understand for people who have not experienced such issues themselves. Many of the symptoms associated with mental illnesses are seen as negative qualities in society. For example, fatigue can come across as laziness and substance abuse can come across as poor decision making. However, many of these symptoms are far more complex than they seem.

“We have so much anxiety going on in us and if we don’t deal with that, we’re going to look for something outside of ourselves to make us feel better,” said Flagstaff therapist Ann Claw. “It’s either going to be a chemical, a substance or it’s going to be a behavior.”

Psychology Today reported that many people believe mental illness only affects those of a certain demographic, while reported that some people to believe it only affects those who are emotionally weak or lacking. Clinical psychologist and NAU professor Diana Orem explained her use of the diathesis-stress model when teaching these ideas.

“Most people that end up with [a] mental illness are born with a predisposition and usually that’s genetic,” Orem said. “But depending on your environment and what you’re exposed to, that determines if your disorder is actually going to manifest.”

Misconceptions surrounding mental health are common among those who suffer from mental illness as well. While mental illnesses are typically a lifelong journey, there are ways to manage and treat the symptoms.

“A lot of people get much, much better and so diagnostically we could say they are in remission,” Orem said. “We could say they no longer meet criteria for whatever the diagnoses [are].”

Finding the right kind of help can be hard but it’s not impossible. Orem said finding the right care is made difficult by a couple of factors. These include getting past the stigma of seeing a therapist, obtaining insurance that covers these health care needs and finding someone who is qualified to address specific issues.

Orem said finding treatment is often essential to living a satisfying life for those who suffer from mental illness. Speaking with a professional, finding proper medication and learning healthy coping strategies are all proven ways to address mental illness.

Although mental illnesses can be difficult to understand, Claw said there are many ways people help someone. She encourages people to be there for others by checking up on them and doing research to better understand their problems.

“For a lot of people it’s validation,” Orem said. “I know I can’t see what’s wrong with you, but I believe you.”

Claw explained that society furthers the belief that it is wrong to feel down, anxious or confused when it is actually a normal part of being human. This misunderstanding leads to fears surrounding therapy and introspection. Learning to examine and understand oneself is an important part of personal growth and can help anyone, whether they have a mental illness or not.

“I just think it’s the greatest adventure to go in and see what’s going on inside us,” Claw said. “What a great life journey to go day to day, look inside and say ‘what am I feeling’ or ‘how am I looking at that’ and be able to change.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 18.5 percent of adults in the U.S. experience mental illness. Mental illness is prevalent in today’s society, so there are ways for people to educate themselves on mental health. Learning from professionals can help to debunk the misconceptions surrounding mental health and could improve society’s understanding of these issues.