From depression to addiction: dispelling mental health myths and mysteries

Illustration of books on mental health
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

If mental illness has ever touched your life in a serious way as it has touched mine, you know that most of society’s perceptions and discussions about mental illness are less than ideal. From depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and addiction, here are just some of the many ways in which we should all regard mental health, so we can be more aware.

Depression: When most people hear the word “depression,” they imagine a sad person in a dark room, lying in bed while crying. This is not always what depression looks like in real life, however. Most people with depression are highly or at least moderately functioning. You never know, the person in front of you, next to you or even rooming with you could have depression without you realizing it —  it could even be the person who wrote this article.

Moreover, depression is not synonymous with sadness. Contrary to popular belief, some people with depression, like me, don’t experience sadness at all. Rather, depression can present itself as extreme numbness or a complete lack of emotion. 

Importantly, an upsetting book makes you sad, not depressed. The emotions that come along with depression are immensely complicated. Depression is not a mood. We all must correct our language, so we can stop treating something as serious as depression so lightly and trivially.

Bipolar disorder: We all, I hope, universally recognize that bipolar disorder consists of alternating episodes with different emotional symptoms. 

Contrary to popular belief, however, these episodes are not mood swings, and mood swings are not bipolar episodes. Episodes of bipolar disorder can last days, weeks or even months; very rarely do they occur on a minute or hourly basis as mood swings do. 

Another misconception about bipolar disorder, while extremely obvious, is equally as important: Bipolar disorder is a human disease, and it cannot affect objects. You might be thinking, “Well, duh!” — but this idea is very pervasive in popular thought. We’ve all heard someone say how “the weather is so bipolar,” but now you know this is, in fact, not correct. Just because the weather changes on a day-to-day basis in Berkeley does not make it bipolar.

Therapy: For those that have never been, talk therapy seems like two people chatting, with the one having problems lying on a couch and the listener sitting and watching constructively. 

This conventional image could not be further from the truth. Talk therapy is hard: It is discovering new memories and facets of your personality that you didn’t know existed. It requires you to question your understanding of reality and many aspects of your life. Talk therapy is becoming a more developed person, all through struggle, and it isn’t just something to be brushed off. 

On a similar note, a lot of people seem to think that therapy is a cure for mental illness — that you can be depressed but go to therapy and become happy. At least for me, this is not the case. Talk therapy is designed to help you learn to cope with symptoms of mental illness or life problems, not to be a fix for those issues. My years spent in talk therapy failed to cure my symptoms, so as I am sure you can imagine, it is extremely frustrating when someone alleges that I am still struggling because I’m not in therapy. 

Schizophrenia: We’ve all seen the depictions of schizophrenia in the media: the “crazy,” “unhinged” and “dangerous” person seemingly unaware of reality. This view could not be more wrong. Those diagnosed with schizophrenia are normal people who live relatively normal, stable lives with the help of treatment options. 

Addiction: All of the misconceptions mentioned in this article are widely misunderstood and largely problematic, but none are as frustrating as the major confusion surrounding addiction. Telling someone with an alcohol addiction to “just stop drinking” or someone with a drug addiction to “just stop using” is exactly as effective as telling someone with cancer to “just stop growing tumors.” Addiction is an illness, not a question of one’s will. Treating it as such perpetuates shame, leaving people with addiction issues feeling inadequate over something largely out of their control.

In my experience, the societal instinct when discussing mental health issues is to give our opinion on why someone is sick or how they can make it better. We tend to treat mental illnesses as superficial topics, whether intentionally or inadvertently, but we must stop. Mental health problems affect millions of people, and belittling those experiences and misusing these terms is not helpful for any of us.

Contact Kate Finman at [email protected].