Debunking the myths of mental health

H EALTH is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Mental health is an aspect of health that is often relegated because of the misconceptions and myths that surround it. Mental health, as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Quite often when people have a loved one who is experiencing a physical health challenge, it is not unusual to find support and care from friends and members of their community, however, when the health challenge borders on mental health, people often feel alone and don’t get as much support.

Inaccurate beliefs about mental health have led to widespread stigma and discrimination. This stigma has led to people avoiding to interact with, socialise, employ or work with people with certain forms of mental illness. This discrimination has led people with such illnesses or people with loved ones with such illness to feel embarrassed or ashamed. This often leads to concealing such challenges and failure to seek appropriate treatment. Some of the inaccurate beliefs and myths that surround mental illness include:

Mental illness is caused by the person suffering from them

When people come down with illnesses such as malaria, hypertension, diabetes and the likes, you don’t hear people say that these illnesses stem from a weakness of the character of the affected persons, or that something they had done had caused the illness.  Even though exact causes of mental disorders are unknown, various researches are increasingly giving clear pointers to factors either responsible for, or contributory to the occurrence of various forms of mental illnesses. People of various personalities, socio-economic status, educational level, ethnicity, race, occupation and religious (or spiritual) beliefs or affiliations have experienced one form of mental illness or the other.

Mentally ill persons are very violent

I often hear people say “he (sometimes she) is not violent…” implying that the illness has not escalated to that level of severity yet. This is usually said because they think “violent behaviour” is the last ‘bus stop’ for all mental illnesses. Public opinion surveys show that many people think mental illness and violence are synonymous. People with certain forms of mental illness have displayed certain heightened tendency and extreme violence, however, violent acts committed by such persons form a small percentage of the overall cases of violence in the society. The real problem is that violence in the context of mental illness is often sensationalised and over-hyped. Dr. Virginia Aldige Hiday, a distinguished Professor of Sociology, stated that “people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators of violent crimes. She further stated that they are even two and half times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged, compared to the general population.

People with mental illness cannot be treated and never really get better

Though some mental illnesses run a lifelong course, statics show that with the significant improvement in mental healthcare worldwide large proportions (over 70 per cent) of people with such illnesses do well with appropriate treatment. Treatment in mental health could involve a single approach, or a combination of medications and/or psychosocial intervention. That someone who had been treated in the past for a mental illness has a reoccurrence of the illness does not mean that the treatment did not work. Reoccurrence of an illness also occurs in other medical cases, and could be as a result of several factors. The goal of treatment in some cases of mental illness is to “control” the situation and not “cure” so that the individual with the illness can optimise their level of living and contribution to the community. Medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes tend to often run a lifelong course and medications are taken to control and not cure such conditions too.

Mental illnesses are more of a spiritual attack than a medical problem

Since the advent of certain medications, beginning from the 1950s, healthcare in the area of mental health has made profound impact and many previously hopeless cases have received hope. Despite this fact, many (or arguably most) people in Nigeria believe that mental illnesses are a result of afflictions caused by supernatural forces. This belief often dictates how, where and from whom people seek help from when they are faced with such challenges. For example, I am of the Christian faith and I hear people often quote the Bible saying Jesus cast out demons from a “mad man,” referring to the infamous mad of Gaderene as recorded in Mark 5 verses 1-20; therefore, most of such people are “demon possessed.” But Jesus also cast out a deaf and dumb spirit in Mark 9 verse 25; does it now mean that “most” cases of deafness are also as a result of a demonic possession?

Researchers have shown that one’s faith can help improve their mental health and help them cope better with stress. My humble submission, therefore, is that faith and mental health should not be mutually exclusive, rather both should be appropriately integrated.


  • Dr Edebi, a Consultant Psychiatrist, Head Synapse Services, Lagos Branch, writes in commemoration of this year’s World Mental Health day that was marked on 10, October, 2016.