Common myths about psychiatry

Myths and stereotypes have always been part of the perception surrounding psychiatry – in part because mental illness was a taboo subject and something most people knew very little about.

Today it is coming more and more out of the shadows and many of the old assumptions have disappeared. Today I’ll shed some light on five of the misconceptions that are still common.

1. A psychiatric diagnosis made in a few minutes can’t possibly be right.

Many people have a hard time believing their mental health issues could possibly be categorized or diagnosed within a short interview. In truth, psychiatric diagnosis is essentially pattern recognition. Criteria have been agreed upon for each condition and if a patient meets those criteria, a diagnosis is made.

As long as there is enough information and it is accurate, a reliable diagnosis can be made regardless of whether that information is coming directly from the patient, a referring doctor, family members, questionnaires or another source.

Of course, a diagnosis is not the only thing that matters. It may take much longer to explain the diagnosis, provide education about its implications, carry out treatment or deal with other problems in a person’s life.

2. Psychiatric problems result from unconscious, hidden conflicts that must be uncovered to resolve the issues.

It is very common for people to believe a psychiatric appointment will involve a lot of time in discussion about childhood issues, their parents or dreams. In reality, although childhood events certainly shape who we become, psychiatric treatment often focuses primarily on solving current issues rather than dwelling on past ones.

3. A drug is a drug.

A lot of misunderstanding persists surrounding psychiatric medications. Many believe that psychiatric medication even when prescribed and taken as directed is no better than using street drugs. This used to be a familiar refrain in AA meetings. Although it is not so common in that setting now, it is still present more often than you might think and it is enough to dissuade many psychiatric patients from attending AA or acknowledging their diagnoses or medications even if they do attend.

Psychiatric medication is very different from street drugs and each medication is formulated differently to deal with specific symptoms. When used as directed, these medications can help a very ill individual return to normal functioning.

4. Counselling can solve every problem.

When patients get frustrated with their lack of response to treatment, they inevitably suggest they need more counselling. Many psychiatric problems are very difficult to treat and may not get better even with the best treatment. Counselling, although helpful, is not the solution to every problem. Further, a person’s perception of what issues need counselling can vary depending on mood. Problems that seem in desperate need of counselling to a depressed individual can evaporate when the depression lifts. Manic individuals are notoriously ruthless in their evaluation of others when they are ill. Their perception can be quite different when they are well.

5. Many or most psychiatric diagnoses are manufactured by drug companies to sell drugs.

This is a blatant conspiracy theory with no basis in reality. Try telling this to someone who lives with a psychiatric illness or to their family who is trying to cope with it. Definitions evolve over time, but examples of most common psychiatric illnesses can be found in documentation from the pre-pharmaceutical era. Psychiatric hospitals were overflowing before there were any effective treatments – pharmaceutical or otherwise.

I look forward to the day when myths about psychiatry are no longer a real barrier for people experiencing mental health conditions.


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