It has been more than 70 years since it was discovered that mental illnesses can be treated with medicines, just like physical illnesses. In spite of significant scientific advances and the development of many drugs to treat mental illnesses, psychiatry remains one of the most misunderstood branches of medicine. Not just the common man, even most people belonging to the medical and paramedical professions do not understand what psychiatry is all about. So, we spoke to Dr. Preeti Parakh, MD Psychiatry, Psychiatrist and Head, Mpower The Centre, Kolkata to know more about the common myths and misconceptions about psychiatry and this is what she had to say:
I learnt this painful truth many years ago when I had just chosen to take up psychiatry as my field of specialization. At the time, a senior doctor I was working with advised me to reconsider my decision. The reason he gave me was that people taking up psychiatry become somewhat weird themselves. This is quite a common belief and many psychiatrists have encountered similar biases. Sadly, this is not the only misconception about psychiatry. There are many others that are actually more harmful because these beliefs stop people from taking psychiatric treatment and lead to prolonged suffering.
1. Only mad or crazy people need to consult psychiatrists
This is one of the most common ones I hear from patients. The moment someone is advised to consult a psychiatrist, pat comes the reply, “I am not mad, why should I see a psychiatrist?”. Psychiatrists treat a multitude of disorders, of which 'madness or insanity/craziness' is only one, and actually not so common. In fact, the word ‘mad’ has been often used in a condescending manner to relegate the other person. Anxiety and depression are the most common diagnoses made by any psychiatrist in the out-patient clinic. Obviously, being anxious or sad does not mean one is mad.
2. Psychiatric disorders are very uncommon
Most people believe that mental illnesses are rare. On the contrary, it is estimated that around one billion people in the world suffer from some mental illness or the other. That would mean one in seven individuals are affected. The numbers are even higher for children and young adults. The World Health Organization states that around 20% of children and adolescents have a mental health condition and suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst 15 to 29 years old people. So at any point in time, it is for sure that someone or the other in our circles is suffering from a mental illness. I do not think that with these numbers, we can afford to brush psychiatry and everything related to it under the carpet.
3. Medicines prescribed by psychiatrists are very harmful
“Do not take medicines given by a psychiatrist. If you start, you will have to take it all your life.” Almost every patient tells similar stories of being cautioned by some well-meaning relative or the other about why they should not be taking medicines from a psychiatrist. The common misconception is that psychotropic medicines are addictive, make you sleep the whole day and have lots of side effects. While it is true that some sleeping pills can be habit-forming and should be used with caution, no other group of psychotropic medicines are habit-forming. If there are any side effects or just drowsiness, one should report the same to the doctor so that the medicines can be changed. There are so many treatment options available these days that people can easily carry on with their daily routines while being on medication.
4. Only weak people are not able to solve their problems themselves and need to consult a psychiatrist
Many people suffering from mental illnesses refuse help because they feel that taking treatment from a psychiatrist is a sign of weakness of character. The shame and stigma are so marked that often months are wasted before people are able to accept that they need professional help. What people need to understand is that asking for help requires courage and should be appreciated. Having a mental illness is no different from having high blood pressure or fever or a fractured limb. If you would not call a person with a fractured limb weak, why should someone with mental illness be considered weak or lacking?
5. Positive thinking, meditation and exercise can cure all mental illnesses
This is something that almost all patients have encountered at some point. There never is a dearth of well-meaning relatives who are willing to offer advice on every subject under the sun, regardless of their own ignorance. The usual counsel is, “Stop thinking negatively. Think only positive thoughts, do meditation and exercise and everything will be fine.” If it were so easy to modify one’s thoughts, no one would ever be sad. It is difficult for these people to understand that no one chooses to be depressed or anxious. Being depressed does not mean one is lazy and does not take sufficient exercise. Exercise and meditation can improve your health but cannot get rid of a mental illness. Having a healthy lifestyle is always beneficial but cannot substitute a psychiatrist’s treatment.
Over the last few years, mental health is getting more and more attention and is being widely discussed in the media. But we also need to address the misconceptions that make people shy away from taking help from a psychiatrist. Unless psychiatry is treated at par with other branches of medicine, the stigma will persist and a number of people would needlessly go on suffering.