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The Myth of the Bad Kid

We all remember at least one “bad kid” in our class or in our lives.  The child was thought to be spoiled, abused, or “just trying to get attention”.  Sound familiar?  Many of these children suffer from illnesses that are not their fault or their caregivers’ fault.

Mental health myths make it easy to blame instead of trying to help.  These kids are often written off.  However, with appropriate mental health services many of these children can be successful and grow up to lead productive lives.  Here are some of the myths that lead to misconceptions that contribute to stigma about mental illness and need to be overcome.

Myth:  Depression and other illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, do not affect children or adolescents.  Any problems they have are just a part of growing up.
Fact: Children and adolescents can develop severe mental illnesses.  Almost 1 in 5 children in Ontario between the ages of 3 and 17 have a diagnosable mental health disorder.  Of these approximately 500,000 children, about 300,000 of them have more than one disorder (source: Ontario Child Health Study, Children’s Mental Health Ontario).  Left untreated, these problems can get worse.

Myth: Mental illness is fatal or terminal and people never get better.
Fact: With the right help, many children with a mental illness do learn to cope and go on to lead healthy, productive, and satisfying lives.

Myth: Children misbehave or fail in school just to get attention.
Fact: No child chooses to be bad.  Mental illness has a physical cause, and is not the result of bad parenting.  Most experts agree that a genetic susceptibility, combined with other risk factors, leads to a psychiatric disorder.

Myth:  People with a mental illness are psycho, mad and dangerous, and have to be locked away.
Fact: Many individuals with a mental illness can have difficulty coping with day-to-day living.  These individuals are at greater risk of harming themselves than others when in great distress.

Myth:  You can tell if someone has a mental illness by looking in their eyes
Fact: Although there are many signs and symptoms for when someone may be developing a mental illness (see Signs and Symptoms of Children’s Mental Health Issues under Getting Started), quick judgments and stereotypes DO NOT make for comprehensive assessments by professionals.

Myth:  Only crazy people see “shrinks.”
Fact:  People of all ages and all walks of life seek help from a variety of mental health professionals, including psychiatrists.  Seeking and accepting help early are critical and are signs of coping and of preventing situations from getting worse.

Myth: If you talk about suicide, you won’t attempt it.
Fact: Suicidal comments have to be taken seriously as they often lead to plans, attempts, or completions.

Myth:  Psychiatric disorders are not true medical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. People who have a mental illness are just “crazy.”
Fact: Brain disorders, like heart disease and diabetes, are legitimate medical illnesses.  Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for mental illness, and that they can be treated effectively.

Myth:  Depression is a character flaw and people should just snap out of it.
Fact:  Research shows that depression has nothing to do with being lazy or weak.  It results from changes in brain chemistry or brain function, and medication and/or psychotherapy often help people to recover.

Myth:  Schizophrenia means split personality, and there is no way to control it.
Fact:  Schizophrenia is often confused with multiple personality disorder.  However, it is a brain disorder that at times causes people to be unable to think clearly and logically.  Symptoms range from social withdrawal to hallucinations and delusions.  Medication helps many of these individuals to lead fulfilling, productive lives.

Myth:  If you have a mental illness, you can will it away.
Fact:  Being treated for a mental illness means an individual or his family has decided to seek professional help.  You can’t just make a mental illness go away because you want it to.  Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away either.  All mental illnesses require professional help, which could include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

Myth:  Addiction is a lifestyle choice and shows a lack of willpower. People with a substance abuse problem are morally weak or “bad”.
Fact:  Addiction is a disease that generally results from changes in brain chemistry.  It has nothing to do with being a “bad” person or lacking willpower.