What does Mental Illness Mean and Should you be Afraid?

August 12, 2019

Mental illness is often times misunderstood and this article tries to document the misconceptions and find some clarity. Take schizophrenia, for example. My understanding is that schizophrenia means having psychotic features that are independent of a change in mood. The dictionary definition of schizophrenia is: “A long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation” ( https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/schizophrenia ).

I asked 28 people at Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf what schizophrenia meant to them, see Chart 1 below. 32% percent of respondents said that schizophrenia meant having multiple personalities, which is a popular misconception. About 7% of respondents mistook schizophrenia for other mental illnesses–one person mistook it for Alzheimers, and another person mistook it for Claustrophobia. Therefore, 39% of interviewees had the wrong conception of what schizophrenia is all about. 46% of respondents mentioned that schizophrenia meant having delusional, paranoid, and illogical thoughts, which starts to get at the dictionary definition of schizophrenia.

Do we need to be afraid of people with mental illnesses? One woman responded, “I’m scared of [schizophrenics]. I met some.” But, the data reveal that there are so few mentally ill people who are violent that hostility towards others literally doesn’t show up in the General Social Survey (GSS), which surveyed people on what they do when they feel mentally ill.

The GSS polled people on what mental illness meant to them. The survey questions was: “Of course, everybody hears a good deal about physical illness and disease, but now, what about the ones we call mental or nervous illness?…When you hear someone say that a person is “mentally-ill,” what does that mean to you? (PROBES: How would you describe a person who is mentally-ill? What do you think a mentally-ill person is like? What does a person like this do that tells you he is mentally-ill? How does a person like this act?)”

5.93% of respondents said that mental illness was about having violent psychoses. When the GSS asked people what were the common symptoms of mental illness, 3.70% of people replied that mentally ill people exhibited violent symptoms, including suicidal tendencies.

However, when the survey asked mentally ill people what they actually did when they felt mentally ill, none of the respondents mentioned hostility towards others–even though it was a response category. What do most mentally ill people do when they are feeling sick? Chart 2, below, reveals that 48% of people talk to a doctor, or some other formal authority. 14% do nothing. Some take medications, some take vacations, some pull themselves together, etc. None of the respondents reported hostility.

The point is that violent psychoses are so rare that a general survey will not even pick it up. A large portion of the public have a misconception about what mental illness means. And, for the most part, there is not that much to be afraid of.

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