Mental health conditions: Separating fact from fiction

One unexpected, albeit encouraging outcome from the COVID-19 pandemic is its role in “normalising” discussions on mental health and placing it at the very fore-front of the health care domain.

May 20, 2022

                                        Heart, Mind and Soul - Fr Philip Chua

Let’s start our discourse today with a question: What springs to your mind when you hear the term “mental illness” or “mental health issues”? What images or thoughts do you conjure up? Let’s face it – these terms are often equated with madness or insanity, causing stigma and preventing people with mental health issues from seeking the right help or interventions. The hard-hitting reality is that this can be deeply harmful.

One unexpected, albeit encouraging outcome from the COVID-19 pandemic is its role in “normalising” discussions on mental health and placing it at the very fore-front of the health care domain. Corporations now devote resources and mental health programmes as catch phrases like “self-care”, “mindfulness” and “mental well-being” becoming increasingly common and part of our daily lexicon. When American gymnast Simone Biles made her stunning decision to withdraw from the gymnastics team final event at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health, she sparked a mental health discussion globally, and in turn, solidifying her position not only as an accomplished athlete but also a mental health advocate.

In 2001, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. This places mental disorders as one of the leading causes of ill health and disability. Suffice to say, this is a sobering and worrying statistic. Perhaps owing to the fact that mental illnesses are not as concrete as physical illnesses or not featured prominently in mainstream media, they are often sidelined and not taken seriously. As mental health gradually moves out of the shadows and increasingly receives the attention it deserves, there is much we can do in our pursuit of better and more meaningful interventions.

We can start by debunking the common myths about mental health and illnesses:

1. People with mental illnesses are violent
Contrary to the widely held perception, generally, people with mental illness are far from violent. In fact, people suffering from mental illness are more vulnerable to the risk of being victims of violence rather than being the perpetrators themselves. This misperception may be attributable to the stereotypes often associated with criminality and dangerous behaviour, propagated by mainstream media.

2. Mental illnesses and health disorders are extremely rare
Mental illnesses are more common than many would like to think. In 2020, the estimated number of people globally suffering from some form of mental disorder was 450 million. This is indeed, by any account, a staggering number. One of the most common health disorders is depression, which affected in excess of 264 million people worldwide in 2017. Undoubtedly, these figures would have increased significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. People with mental health disorders do not respond to treatment
Mental illness does not, and should not, define a person nor one’s potential in life. Whether a mental health disorder is episodic or chronic, it can respond to treatment. With the proper course of treatment and support, recovery is feasible, with many going on to live rewarding and purposeful lives. Needless to say, the path of recovery may not be linear and there may be many impediments along the way. There are also some mental health disorders which do not resolve over time, for example, bipolar disorder.

4. Mental health concerns are a weakness
Equating a mental health illness to a form of weakness is in itself, a fundamentally flawed notion. We need to recognise that mental health and mental strength are two disparate concepts. This assumption is at the core of how differently many people view mental health compared to physical health, and the distinction drawn on the treatment options. Just because symptoms of mental illness are not easily visible, it does not mean that they are less painful or crippling as a physical health problem. This misconception has led to many people suffering from mental disorders not expressing their concerns, often leading to damaging consequences. Heart, Mind and Soul Fr Philip Chua

5. People with mental health conditions cannot work
Whilst it is true that someone with a particularly severe mental health condition may be unable to carry out regular work, a majority of people with mental health conditions can be as productive as their counterparts without such conditions. Chances are, unbeknownst to us, many of us would have worked with someone with a mental health issue.

We need to recognise that mental health concerns are a common part of us being humans and can occur in anyone, regardless of race, age, religion or gender. This is why busting commonly held misconceptions on mental illness and mental health is critical. Above all, it warrants a collective effort. On this front, I wish to urge everyone to play an active role – seek help, promote mental health, and remove the stigma.

At the Archdiocesan Mental Health Ministry, we recognise that mental health struggles can sometimes be insurmountable, but there is hope. Treatments and relief are possible. If you or someone you care about has mental health concerns, reach out to us. Alternatively, the Shalom Careline (03-2723 7272) is available Mondays to Sundays from 10.00am to 1.00pm and from 7.00pm to 11.00pm. This telephone platform offers emotional support service for free to the public, manned by trained volunteers and is available in English, Bahasa Melayu and Tamil.

(Fr Philip Chua is a Licensed Counsellor & Clinical Supervisor (LKM). He is also the Ecclesiastical Assistant for the Archdiocesan Mental Health Ministry.)

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