When First Impressions are the Worst Impressions
The first time you ever heard the term “mental illness”, what did you think of? I can tell you what I thought of.
I was in the beginning of high school the first time I recall hearing this term. At the time, associated it with people who were unstable. I thought of people who were violent or adults who had tantrums or isolated old women who never left the house. I thought of mental illness as something that was permanent, something that individuals “had” and couldn’t recover from. Even though de-institutionalization was prevalent by that point, I still thought of people who have long stays at psychiatric wards and pictured them mumbling to themselves in a straight jacket.
Ironically, I was going through my own struggles with mental illness at the time. I didn’t call it mental illness then. I would go back and forth between feeling anxious and depressed, but I thought it was teen angst and aloofness. But was I mentally ill? My 16-year-old self would say “No way. I’m not crazy.” (Whatever “crazy” means…)
My teenage image of what an adult living with a mental illness might look like.
As I learned more about mental illness, my view of it changed substantially. By the time I was halfway through college, I realized that my anxiety and mood disorder had a significant impact on my functioning and that mental health existed on a much wider spectrum than I thought. My lived experience with mental illness was one of several factors that influenced me to study human behavior. But what about people who do not have the desire to learn about this topic? Are their impressions as biased, extreme, and inaccurate as the examples I mentioned above?
My teenage reactions to the term “mental illness” were similar to the negative stereotypes that exist in the public sphere. One of the most egregious stereotypes of people who live with mental illness is that they are more likely to be violent than the general population. The truth is that people who have a mental health diagnosis are about 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.
A mannequin represents a victim of crime on the street. Despite certain stereotypes, individuals with a mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.
Perhaps the stereotypical images discussed above are the first to come to people’s minds because they are the most extreme interpretations of what mental illness might look like. The hard truth is that the majority of mental illnesses are subtle. Somebody could be diagnosed with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety and the rest of us would have no idea. In fact, over 40 million…Read More.