Texas A&M University is recognizing National Suicide Prevention Awareness month with a series of activities…
Texas A&M experts clarify four mental health myths and provide practical advice on managing mental wellness
In 1908, Clifford Beers published A Mind That Found Itself, an autobiography of his mental health hospitalization and abuse therein, which is credited with being the origin of what has become the mental health movement. Despite more than a century of awareness, myths and misinformation regarding mental health still exist. We spoke with five Texas A&M Health experts to get their views on a few of these mental health myths so more accurate information can be present within our community.
Myth 1: Mental health issues are a result of personality weakness or character flaws, and people can “snap out of it” if they try hard enough.
“That’s like saying you got cancer because you have a ‘personal weakness,’” said Kelly Sopchak, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the Texas A&M University School of Medicine and program manager of the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program. “There’s enough stuff that can happen to anybody that can knock them off track.”
One way to view mental health is as a spectrum of severity. We are all on the spectrum, and as we move through life, we can also move along that spectrum. There is only so much a person can control in their life, and an event can temporarily push us into a higher-severity location on that spectrum.
“If it were as simple as people snapping out of it, they would do it! The reality is that that doesn’t happen,” said James Deegear, PhD, ABPP, interim senior director of counseling and mental health care at Texas A&M University Health Services. “I believe people try their best, but then unfortunately realize they have limitations. There are times where they need added expertise and support.”
Myth 2: Because someone is struggling with their mental health, they need therapy and medication.
Therapy, medication or a combination of the two can do wonders for a person. Not all people require professional help, however, and the support they need can come from those around them instead. If someone you know seems to be struggling, lend them a patient ear.
Efficacy aside, there is another issue with this myth.
“A lot of people think they need therapy or medicine. Although both can be beneficial when you’re really suffering (or as preventative care when you’re doing well), the ability to access that care is limited due to a shortage of mental health providers in our country,” said Meredith Williamson, PhD, director of behavioral health and wellness at the School of Medicine and Texas A&M Health Family Care.
Millions of Texans don’t have access to mental health care close to home, with 97 percent of Texas (248 of 254 counties) lacking a sufficient number of mental health professionals to support their population. Social support can be an effective way to get help to people who need it but don’t have a critical need for professional help.
“Oftentimes, people need a better listener more than they need a good therapist,” said Nathan Ellison, MS, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor at University Health Services.
Genuine relationships can be a predictor of a person’s ability to recover from a mental illness. If someone close to you is struggling, you don’t have to know what to say or do. Your presence, hearing their concerns and creating an accepting environment where it’s okay to not be okay are helpful.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers resources for those in need and can be a great resource to share if someone comes to you for support.
Myth 3: It is impossible to prevent a mental health condition.
The reality of this mental health myth is that it depends. Although preventing trauma can reduce the likelihood of a mental illness occurring, certain factors can be present at birth that predispose an individual to mental illness.
“There’s something called the Diathesis-Stress Model, which says that we all have some kind of genetic predisposition for all things: personality, happiness, having depression or even getting cancer,” said Carly McCord, PhD, clinical associate professor in the School of Medicine and the School of Education & Human Development. “If you’ve got five water glasses representing five people, each of them starts with a different amount of water (genetic predisposition). To make that cup overfill, it’s different for each person; some people may only take a little bit of stress to trigger that first incident.”
Genetics are not the only factor influencing someone’s mental wellness. Risk factors, such as witnessing traumatic events, and risk factor management can affect the chances a person will develop a mental health condition. Although not all traumatic events are preventable, being prepared before trauma is inflicted and knowing how to care for it afterward are important steps toward mental health protection.
Myth 4: Talking about suicide puts that idea in someone’s head.
“We absolutely should ask people if they’re thinking of taking their life. It can be scary to not know the answer, but you don’t have to know how to help them not be suicidal; you just have to help them get connected with services,” McCord said.
McCord then explains the difference between suicidal ideation, or thinking, and intent, which is having the actual intent to take harmful action. “If you’re thinking about suicide, that’s a really good alarm bell that you’re very overwhelmed. You need something in your life that’s not there. That’s a great time to be reaching out for help,” she said.
If you are in a life-threatening situation or your safety is at risk, call 911. In case of a mental health emergency, dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. For more information on mental health resources at Texas A&M University, visit mentalhealth.tamu.edu.
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