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Another 10 Mental Illnesses and Their Myths

Tessa Yelton

The positive responses to my list of mental illness myths, plus some significant illnesses that had to be left out to keep the list to ten items, have inspired me to write a follow-up list. Here are ten more mental illnesses, and disorders, with commonly believed myths.

10

Personality Disorders

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The Myth: Personality Disorders are incurable elements of a person.

There are a total of ten personality disorders: paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependant, obsessive-compulsive, depressive, and passive-aggressive. According to the World Health Organization, these personality disorders are diagnosed when “the individual’s characteristic and enduring patterns of inner experience and behavior” is abnormal — in other words, personality disorders have a pervasive affect on the person’s thoughts and behaviors, and have usually been part of the person for a long time.

Some people think that the name “personality disorders” and the fact that these disorders affect people so thoroughly mean that they are simply a part of the person and are, therefore, incurable. It may not always be possible to cure someone of a personality disorder, but people with personality disorders certainly can go through therapy to learn more useful ways of dealing with themselves and other people. Someone’s personality can change over time, and as is proved by many people who overcame mental illness, it is always possible (even if very difficult) to change patterns of thought and behavior.

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Psychopathy

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The Myth: Psychopaths are all murderers/serial killers.

It’s not entirely clear to me what currently recognized disorder belongs to the idea of psychopathy — antisocial personality disorder overlaps, but is not the same — but I do know the definition. Psychopaths are self-centered, superficially charming, callous, reckless, fearless and irresponsible, have no empathy for other people or sense of guilt, and often can lie as easily as tell the truth, because they don’t particularly care whether what they say is true. Certainly, the charm and lack of empathy or guilt would make a psychopath an excellent serial killer. On the other hand, their lack of planning might cause problems when it comes to covering up that crime.

Still, even if it would be easy for somebody like this to commit murder, psychopaths may live their lives simply lying and making reckless decisions, not killing people. Plus, many serial killers are psychotic (“crazy” or delusional) or have one of a variety of other problems rather than being psychopathic, so “psychopath” is not a synonym for someone who doesn’t mind committing murder.

8

Learning Disabilities

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The Myth: People with learning disabilities are less intelligent than people who don’t have them.

In response to the many people who complained, on the last list, that dyslexia is not a mental illness, learning disabilities usually negatively affect somebody’s life and aren’t caused by physical reasons, and they are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders, so I believe they belong on this list.

There is a large variety of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dyscalculia (unusual trouble with math), auditory processing disorder, dysgraphia (problems writing), and issues with spatial awareness.

It’s a common idea that people with learning disabilities, because they learn slowly in classroom environments that are not suited to them, are less intelligent than their peers. In fact, many people with learning disabilities are highly intelligent, though of course they don’t have to be, and most are unusually creative. Some of them are most intelligent in an area that, unfortunately, isn’t emphasized in school, so they struggle in the classes that schools think are most important. These people simply learn and think in different ways than average people, not in worse ways.

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Agoraphobia

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The Myth: Agoraphobia is a fear of open places.

“Agoraphobia” literally means “fear of the marketplace”. It is often considered to be a fear of open or public places. People who suffer from panic attacks often develop agoraphobia because they want to avoid any situation that might cause an attack. Other people with agoraphobia haven’t actually had panic attacks, but are afraid of similar things — for instance, a sense that they will pass out. Agoraphobia can be so severe that someone who suffers from it may be unable even to leave the house

But agoraphobia is not specifically a fear of open places. Instead, it is a fear of places that the phobic person cannot easily escape from, if they need to for some reason – most likely if they start to have a panic attack. An open area offers few places to hide within a short distance, and a public place would be embarrassing to get out of. I’ve even heard a suggestion that agoraphobia is most similar to claustrophobia, in that it is a fear of being trapped somewhere.

To be fair, this is not the only reason for someone to be agoraphobic; every expert seems to have a slightly different opinion of what agoraphobia means. However, they are in agreement that it is often mostly about panic, and it certainly doesn’t just happen in open spaces.

6

Depression

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The Myth: Depression only affects a person’s mood.

Depression is, by far, the most common mental illness in the United States, with about 17% of people suffering from clinical depression at some point in their life. Depression causes persistent, long-term feelings of sadness and hopelessness and a lack of interest in activities that the depressed person once enjoyed. It’s easy to think that depression is only an emotional problem, but depression also has a lot of relations to the physical body as well.

First, depression can be caused by physical reasons, most commonly as an imbalance of chemicals in the body. Chronic pain and some physical illnesses also cause depression. At the same time, people often feel more pain when they are depressed, either because they are more stressed, they are dwelling on their pain more, or depression just causes pain to become worse. Depression also usually causes people to sleep more or less and eat more or less, depending on the individual, and those habits have a major physical effect. There are various other connections between depression and the physical body as well.

So if you know someone who is depressed, don’t imagine that they’re just sad. Not only are they a lot more than “just sad” but emotions are not the only thing involved.

5

Social Anxiety Disorder

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The Myth: Social Anxiety Disorder is a fancy name for shyness.

Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses — yet it’s not well known at all. One of the reasons it is so often ignored is that many people consider it to be just the same as shyness, and not a problem. People with social anxiety disorder are afraid of social situations and social judgement, and tend to be nervous about things like meeting new people or asking questions in school, like shy people. However, there are many ways in which SAD is different than shyness.

One of these differences is that shy people are more likely (though not guaranteed) to warm up after a while in a social situation and to naturally become more confident as they get older. People with SAD, on the other hand, are more likely to have strikingly different behavior between different situations: some (not all) of them are entirely at ease socializing with family members or friends but change completely, almost acting like a different person, when they face something that makes them nervous. A bigger difference is that people with SAD start worrying about anxiety-causing situations in advance, causing them to either avoid the situation or to become even more stressed when they are in it.

But the main contrast is that social anxiety disorder is a disorder. People who are only shy are able to deal with situations that make them nervous, so they can do what they need to do. When someone’s shyness becomes so severe that it causes them to fail a school project because they can’t present it to the class, have trouble making friends, be unemployed because they can’t handle job interviews, or they become very unhappy about their trouble with social situations or otherwise have shyness severely affect their life, they have social anxiety disorder.

4

Bipolar Disorder

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The Myth: Manic episodes are enjoyable times of great creativity.

This is a myth that sometimes can be true. People who suffer from bipolar disorder have alternating periods of depression and an elevated mood known as mania. Mania usually involves feelings of happiness, energy, inappropriately high self-esteem, and lack of inhibition or self-control. This can allow creativity to come more easily, since a manic person will just use their ideas, without considering how good or bad they are. Some artists or writers with manic depression actually do not want treatment, because their manic episodes are so useful to them, even if the depression is miserable.

On the other hand, there are a lot of negative aspects of mania, like a shortened attention span and a lack of sleep. The lack of inhibitions can cause spending sprees that the person cannot afford, inappropriate social behavior, or dangerously reckless actions. Mania can also cause irritability and a short temper, as much as it can create pleasant feelings, and it may impair a person’s life as much as depression does.

In addition, most people with bipolar disorder aren’t unusually creative in their manic phases, since they are not naturally inclined to be creative in the first place. (It might be that manic depression is just more noticeable and interesting in artists and writers, causing us to hear about them more often.) Plus, not everyone with bipolar disorder actually gets full-fledged mania. They can be diagnosed with the disorder if they have episodes of depression alternating with episodes of positive feelings that are not as extreme as mania. Like a lot of disorders, there are various severities of problems that all earn the diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

3

Bulimia

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The Myth: People with bulimia always purge by inducing vomiting.

Well, this is turning out to be a pretty sad list, what with two anxiety disorders, two types of depression, and now bulimia, which tends to co-exist with depression and anxiety. But don’t worry — the final two items will go in different directions.

Bulimia is one of a large number of eating disorders, some of which can be found on our list, “10 Terrible Eating-Related Disorders”. People with bulimia are intensely concerned either with losing weight or maintaining their current weight. However, they can’t or don’t want to avoid eating altogether, so they eat a normal or unusually large amount of food (binge) and then find some way to get rid of it (purge). The binge-purge cycles are usually not entirely under the person’s conscious control, especially not after the person has been bulimic for a long time.

One of the most common ways to purge is to induce vomiting. There are, however, other ways. Many bulimic people use laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills. Others exercise to work off the weight they believe they gained from a meal or fast in compensation for the food they ate when they binged. So, just because somebody does not throw up after meals does not mean that they are not bulimic.

2

Amnesia

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The Myth: Someone who gets amnesia forgets his or her past and identity.

Amnesia is, basically, memory loss. When we hear about amnesia in books and movies, it usually involves a loss of most or all memories from before the time that the amnesia began. This is not, however, how amnesia usually works.

Amnesia is usually caused by some kind of damage to the brain by injury, drugs, or illness, and a type of amnesia called “dissociative amnesia” is created by psychological reasons, usually resulting from a traumatic event. There are two general kinds of amnesia according to their effect: anterograde and retrograde. Anterograde amnesia causes people to have trouble forming new memories. Retrograde amnesia causes people to forget memories that they already had. A lot of people with amnesia suffer from both kinds. For instance, one of the more common kinds of amnesia occurs when someone gets a head injury and forgets both the events leading up to the injury and what happened immediately afterwards. A severe form of mixed amnesia could include forgetting some past events as well as having permanent problems with new memories.

One thing that is rarely taken away is memories of how to do something. Once you know how to ride a bike, you will always know how to ride a bike, even if you get severe retrograde amnesia. Another thing that usually stays, even in the worst cases, is some sense of personal identity. Not everything about a person’s past is lost, so they still have some idea who they are. For instance, one famous amnesia patient, KC, can’t remember any event from before or after his accident, but still recognizes his family members. It is possible for someone to temporarily lose any memory of their identity, caused by a psychological problem called a “dissociative fugue”, but this is extremely rare compared to other types of amnesia.

One movie that is fairly accurate about severe amnesia is Memento. If you have not seen this, you absolutely should, but be warned that you may have to watch it twice before you understand the plot.

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Tourette Syndrome

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The Myth: People with Tourette syndrome swear uncontrollably.

I absolutely can’t believe I left this one off the last list. Well, here it is.

What is Tourette syndrome? You’ll probably say it’s when someone involuntarily says swear words. That’s true — in less than ten percent of cases. A better description of Tourette syndrome (TS) is a disorder where people feel the need to make a specific movement or sound, called a tic, the same way everyone has a desire to blink or to scratch something that itches. People with TS can control their tics, but that’s very difficult, and sometimes it causes the tics to be worse after they give in. The frequency of tics can change between situations and over time, usually getting better as the person gets older.

People with Tourette Syndrome have two kinds of tics: motor and vocal. The most common motor tic is excessive eye-blinking. Other examples are grimacing or moving arms or legs. The most common vocal tic is actually throat-clearing, but vocal tics can also include saying words, making meaningless sounds, or even repeating what someone else has said (echolalia). Tics in themselves aren’t usually a problem, but they can be annoying and cause negative reactions from other people (particularly if the vocal tic does involve inappropriate words), and TS can be related to ADHD and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Hopefully, this entry, and the entire list, has helped to point out that there is more to mental disorders than the most common or popular versions showed in the media.