The 8 most common misconceptions about mental illnesses.

Image: iStock.

In recent years, we’ve made huge strides when it comes to understanding, diagnosing and treating mental disorders.

In turn, mental health language has rapidly entered our cultural vernacular – in precisely the wrong way. Every day we hear words related to mental health being used in ways that are nothing short of absurd.

If you feel a little bit sad today, but felt OK yesterday, you’re probably not ‘bipolar’. If you wash your hands after you go to the toilet, and like having your bed made, it’s unlikely you’re suffering from ‘OCD’. If your boyfriend dumped you two days ago, and you haven’t stopped crying, you’re not necessarily ‘depressed.’

You’re human. The condition you’re experiencing is called ‘being human.’

Here, we’ve outlined the eight most common misconceptions about mental illnesses, because they need to be challenged if we’re to remove the stigma from mental health issues.

Watch: Mia Freedman discusses how she deals with her anxiety. (Post continues after video.)

 1. Being a clean, organised person makes you “a little bit OCD.”

First, let’s address the grammatical issue with this statement. It doesn’t make sense to say, “I’m a little bit Obsessive Compulsive Disorder!” It’s like saying, “I’m a little bit depression”. Microsoft Word would give you a very angry green squiggly line.

OCD actually involves obsessions (e.g. the obsessive thought that you’ve left the oven on), and compulsions (e.g. checking the oven multiple times to see whether it’s on), and sufferers often feel a great deal of shame about their behaviours. That is, they’re not making Youtube videos about how to neatly stack cookie jars in a series called ‘KHLO-C-D’ (this is the title of Khloe Kardashian‘s web series).

No. No you’re not. (Image via Youtube.)

2. People with a mental illness are violent.

When we hear about a person committing a violent crime, it’s often assumed they’re suffering from some sort of mental illness. To a degree, this makes sense; if someone attacks, rapes, or murders another human being, we can probably infer that they’re not stable and well adjusted.


However, someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be the victim of violence that the perpetrator of it. And individuals suffering from anxiety or depression or schizophrenia or bipolar are significantly more inclined to hurt themselves than anyone else.

So we need to be careful not to conflate mental illness with violence. Such beliefs are stigmatising and ultimately very damaging to those suffering from mental health issues.

3. Being moody is a bit like having bipolar.

Yesterday, you might have cried watching puppy videos on the Internet. Today, you may have wanted to embrace the person next to you because you’re just so thrilled to be alive. That’s OK. Humans are weird. Sometimes we don’t feel exactly how we think we should, or we don’t respond in a predictable way.

Bipolar is far more complex that the mood swings people experience in their day-to-day lives. There are actually two types of bipolar, and the mood phases don’t change within a number of hours, but rather, over a few weeks. (Post continues after gallery.)

4. People with a mental illness are weak and just need to get over it.

Having a mental illness has nothing to do with character flaws or personal weaknesses. Mental illnesses are caused by a complex combination of biological, genetic, social and environmental factors and can affect anyone.

Responses like ‘snap out of it’, ‘cheer up’, and ‘no one likes a sad sack’ are not at all helpful to people who are suffering. Acknowledging a mental health problem, and seeking professional help for it, is the ‘strongest’ thing one can do.

5. People fake mental illnesses as an excuse to get out of work or study.

The suggestion that people fake mental illness for the ‘benefits’ is on par with the claim that there is an epidemic of women falsely accusing men of rape; the fear that it’s happening is completely disproportionate to how often it is actually taking place.

Have people used mental illness as an excuse to hand in a university assignment late? Probably. But the overwhelming majority of people who claim to struggle with mental illness are genuinely suffering. Responding with suspicion when learning of a person’s mental health struggles is very unfair, and can be seriously damaging.

"The overwhelming majority of people who claim to struggle with mental illness are genuinely suffering." (Image via iStock.)

6. People with eating disorders are really, really skinny.

When we think about someone with an eating disorder, we often think of an emaciated young girl. But this stereotype is misleading.

Many people who suffer from an eating disorder are struggling with bulimia, binge eating disorder or what clinicians call ‘OSFED’ (other specified feeding or eating disorder), which doesn’t necessarily mean the person is underweight. In fact, anorexia is the rarest eating disorder. So most people who have problems with eating are of a normal weight, or are overweight.

7. Addiction shows a lack of willpower.

Drug or alcohol addiction has nothing to do with a lack of willpower. Repeated use of substances changes the way the brain works – specifically the reward, motivation and memory functions. While it may appear to onlookers that a person with an addiction simply doesn’t want to stop, this isn’t the case. They feel powerless in controlling their own actions. Treatment for an addiction is far more complex than self-discipline. (Post continues after gallery.)

8. Children don’t experience mental health problems.

It’s assumed that for all kids, childhood is a time with minimal worries or concerns. However, even very young children can suffer from mental health issues. In fact, half of all mental illnesses show signs before the age of 14, and three quarters of them start before 24. Yet, often mental illnesses in children go undetected. Emotions like depression, anxiety and stress can actually exhibit themselves in different ways in children and adolescents, and a significant amount of research is now being dedicated to better understanding mental health issues in young people.

There are countless other misconceptions about mental illness that we need to work towards challenging. Unfortunately, while we’ve become more aware of mental health problems, our understanding often isn’t as nuanced and detailed as we need it to be.

It starts with jokes about ‘feeling a bit bipolar today’, or ‘being a little bit OCD’, and ends with a very serious misunderstanding of mental health issues that can have vast consequences for those who are truly suffering.

If you need to talk to someone, here are some ways to find support. Beyondblue support service phone 1300 22 4636 or email or chat online at You can also contact Lifeline.