Recently a South Asian high school junior informed his father with great enthusiasm, that he was very much interested in mental health and wants to become a psychiatrist. His father expressed his serious concerns that as a psychiatrist, talking to lot of mentally ill people might make him mentally ill. He tried to discourage his son from pursuing a career in mental health.
Such misperceptions are not uncommon in our community. There are many other myths about mental illness in South Asians. This is woven in with the strong stigma associated with mental illness. People can be highly educated with graduate degrees, PhD, or MD degrees. It does not matter. Such education does not necessarily help overcome stigma and poor understanding of mental illness.
Another common myth is that in order to seek psychiatric treatment e.g., psychotherapy, counseling or even medications, one has to be “totally out of one’s mind.” That is so not true. In fact, some of the common problems that can be helped with psychiatric treatment are anxiety, depression, ADHD, insomnia, substance abuse, panic attacks and so on. When you meet these people, you cannot tell by just looking at them that they have some kind of mental illness. In fact, if you look around in your circle, you will likely find someone who has had mental health challenges even if it is recent COVID-19 related stress and anxiety.
Such myths and ignorance can be a major hindrance to seeking help when needed. Some minimize or deny the problems and discourage their loved ones from seeking help. They say things like, “Oh, just work hard, focus on your work, you will get over it. It is just a passing phase.” Unfortunately, this can lead to protracted suffering for the individual without proper help. Besides emotional suffering, their lives and functioning can be affected. For example, their performance in school might deteriorate and their relationships can suffer. And, tragically, sometimes it can result in suicide. It can also result in well-intentioned but misguided advice to others like the youth mentioned earlier in this post was being discouraged from pursuing a career in mental health.
So, remember, while an individual’s mental illness, like any other medical illness, can have impact on others like family, friends, and co-workers, it is not contagious. It is not COVID19! Speaking with or living with a mentally ill person does not make you mentally ill. I think psychiatry is a great field, and it empowers the person to help alleviate the suffering of so many people.
There are many other myths about mental illness. Stay tuned to read about these in future blog posts.
By Vasudev N Makhija, MD
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