5 modern myths about mental illness and how they might damage your family

Mental health has only recently emerged as an acceptable talking point in mainstream media. By being open about their own struggles, celebrities like Demi Lovato and Lena Dunham have made it much easier for others to seek help.

In the UK last month, Prince Harry spoke emotionally about how he regretted not talking about his mother’s death, how keeping it bottled up created problems later in life.

This underlines the fact that, while awareness is growing, many (most?) people think of mental health issues in the same abstract way they view shark attacks. A nightmare scenario, but hardly a day-to-day concern. This brings us to Mental Health Myth #1

1) Mental health problems happen to other people’s families.

Not true, and this comes from Royalty itself. “Everyone can suffer from mental health (issues),” says Prince Harry. “Whether you’re a member of the royal family, whether you’re a mother, father, a child, it doesn’t really matter. Everyone can suffer.”

This is also borne out by the stats which tell us that 1 in 5 Americans experience a mental health problem in any given year.[1] In the UK it’s 1 in 4.[2]

And mental health is an equal opportunities menace. Behavioral and other issues can affect any family regardless of background, ethnicity or income.

2) Children are too young to suffer from mental illness.

Nope. Half of all children and young people (aged 13–18 years) will have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem during adolescence, with more than 1 in 5 of all children suffering serious consequences.[3] And this tragic stat is understandable when you consider the physical, mental and emotional changes our children experience. These natural phenomena are exacerbated by new problems like cyber-bullying and the amplification of self-image issues via social media.

3) It’s pretty obvious if there’s a problem developing. I’ll deal with it if it comes up.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Families that have experienced emotional and behavioral upheaval often think, “I never saw that coming”. Changes are subtle and rarely happen all at once. When issues emerge gradually it is easy to miss telltale signs until things are suddenly and very obviously wrong.

And this is totally understandable, by the way. Every parent sets out to be the best parent they can be, but as families grow and children get older, the rest of the world demands attention. Making ends meet, managing careers, a rise in home working that blurs family and work roles and (if you’re lucky) your own adult relationships. All this is a distraction to what might be happening in a child’s mind — often while they’re alone or away from your protective embrace.

4) If it happens, well, that’s what doctors are there for.

It’s true that curing illness is indeed what public and private health care providers are all about. But wouldn’t it be better to preempt harm and prevent these issues from taking root in the first place?

And we can’t rely on healthcare organizations to come riding to the rescue, given the constraints on them. According to a recent report, more than a quarter of children referred to mental health services in England in 2015 received no help, including some who had attempted suicide. In the United States, 55% of children with a mental health diagnosis received no form of service from health, social or school services in the prior 12 months.[4]

5) These issues are a rite of passage. They don’t have a long term impact.

This is perhaps the most damaging myth of all. In the mid-’90s, researchers discovered that Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs — events like neglect, abuse, parental divorce and household mental illness — dramatically increased the risk of seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death.[5]

Two thirds of the population suffered at least one ACE and one in eight had four or more. With this score, the relative risk of depression was four and a half times that of someone with an ACE score of zero. For suicidality, it was 12 times.

I witnessed mental health issues and behavioral disorders emerging in friends’ families and, I’m sorry to say, in my own. I desperately wanted to help but after doing a ton of research I discovered that there was very little support for parents who wanted to nip these issues in the bud before they take root.

MyFampal is born of my journey. We passionately believe two things:

· Parents want to take the lead in their family’s emotional health and not rely on schools, doctors and other institutions.

· Prevention is always better than cure.

That’s why we’ve developed a service that helps parents take control of their family’s wellbeing. Think of it like an emotional fitness tracker for your family. We’d love you to try it out, for free.

These issues matter. Left unchecked they can cause untold damage to families. And don’t think this is something that happens only to other people. I am one of millions who thought the same thing and learned the hard way that it’s just not true.

I’d love to hear what you think about mental health issues in families. Is it as big a problem as I suggest? Are these myths as widespread as I think they are? Is prevention better than cure?

John Kerrigan is CEO and Founder of MyFampal, a technology company dedicated to improving family outcomes.

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[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mental-illness-ami-among-us-adults.shtml

[2] McManus S, Meltzer H, Brugha T, Bebbington P, Jenkins R (eds) (2009). Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England 2007: results of a household survey. NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care. [online] Available at: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/pubs/psychiatricmorbidity07 [Accessed 25 Aug. 2015].

[3] Merikangas KR, He J, Burstein M, et al. Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in US Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2010; 49: 980–9.

[4] Costello EJ, He J, Sampson NA, Kessler RC, Merikangas KR. Services for Adolescents With Psychiatric Disorders: 12-Month Data From the National Comorbidity Survey–Adolescent. PS 2014; 65: 359–66.

[5] Anda R. ACE Study Major Findings. 2014; published online May 13. http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/findings.html (accessed Feb 9, 2015).