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Mental Health Myth Busting

This is an edited extract from Life Skills For a Broken World by Dr Ahona Guha // photograph by Priscilla Du Preez 

We are taught a range of myths about mental health and wellness, which means we often flounder and struggle to recognise the things we can do to proactively address how we feel. At their base, all mental health disorders involve difficulties managing emotion and thinking. Learning to understand and manage how we feel and think helps us recover from (or prevent) these difficulties.

In the course of my work, and in my day-to-day life, here are some of the more common myths I have encountered:

  • Any distress is problematic.
  • Pain and sadness should be avoided at all costs.
  • Difficult emotions need to be ‘managed’ or ‘processed’ neatly (i.e., reduced).
  • Emotions should be pushed away.
  • Or, conversely, all emotions need to be expressed and validated all the time.
  • Our thoughts always reflect reality.
  • Our memories are a perfect record of what happened.
  • Our relationships must always fulfil us.
  • If we try hard enough, we can achieve anything.
  • How we feel comes from within — with no social or outside influences at all.

On the surface, some of these beliefs are okay. For instance, if we believe that if we try hard and practise, we can learn new things and achieve goals, we will likely have a greater sense of self-efficacy (the belief that we can effect change and influence our lives) than if we feel that our skills and talents are predetermined. However, even these helpful mindsets can be taken too far, especially when connected with hustle and productivity culture.

The last myth in the list is particularly destructive. We often ignore the reality of social influences, holding instead a hyper-individualistic view, but the societal structures we live in contribute enormously to our mental health, and it can help us to recognise this when we are struggling. While we do need to cultivate our own resilience (the capacity to bounce back from difficult circumstances), wellbeing is strongly influenced by the structures around us, such as work demands and social- security systems.

As you read this book, there are some mental health myths I’d like you to think about — and then drop.

Myth: Mental health means I do not feel sad, angry, anxious, distressed, or upset.

Truth: Mental health means that you understand and allow for all emotions, seeing them as responses to the world and information for you about how to live your life and what is and isn’t working. The human brain is wired to feel all these emotions at various times — they all provide necessary information, and they can’t be pushed away.

Myth: Once I fix my mental health, I will never have a bad day/week.

Truth: Living a thinking and feeling life means you will sometimes have bad days or weeks. Having good mental health means you understand, examine, allow, and usefully respond to these difficult times, instead of panicking and pushing them away — or giving in to them completely.

Myth: I need to fix my mental health before I do X, Y, or Z.

Truth: Putting off life because of poor mental health is likely contributing to keeping you stuck. Do as many of the things you want as you can, despite how you feel, and you may find that your mental health improves as a result.

Myth: My mental health is bad because of my childhood/relationship/history, and I can’t fix it.

Truth: While your mental health might be poor because of things that happened to you (traumas, upbringing, and genetics all contribute to mental health difficulties), you have a responsibility to yourself to work on finding healing. It may be difficult to understand why other people have hurt you, and hard to accept that the only person who can help you find recovery is yourself — but it’s also essential for wellbeing and for living a good life.

Myth: I can’t be mentally well until I do X, Y, and Z — for example, find a partner/have a child/finish my degree.

Truth: None of these things will bring you mental health or wellbeing. True wellbeing sits outside what you possess/have/engage in, and you can work on understanding and building wellbeing even when you feel things are missing from your life. Of course, it’s important to feel that you are working towards the things you want and that you have a meaningful life, so taking steps to achieve cherished goals is important, but it’s helpful to focus on the process and your actions — not just the outcome.

Myth: I don’t have time to work on being okay.

Truth: If you don’t make time for wellness now, you’ll probably need to make time for illness later. This goes for both physical and mental health.

Myth: Mental health is about feeling happy.

Truth: Happiness is just one emotion. you will sometimes feel happy, just as you will sometimes feel other emotions (love, sadness, rage, anxiety, fear, greed, disgust, etc.). feeling one emotion can’t be your ultimate goal, and we all have a biologically determined happiness set-point, making constant efforts to be happier pointless (it’s a little like trying to raise your body’s natural temperature set-point, or change its alkalinity.) Researchers have studied this at length and found that most people fluctuate within a small range of happiness. It’s possible to influence this to some extent— for example, committed political and social action and connection have been found to improve wellbeing, whereas focus on career gains and material goals are detrimental. Similarly, big events such as divorce or an acquired disability can reduce wellbeing. However, trying to artificially force happiness is unlikely to pay off. you will sometimes feel happy if you do meaningful things, find purpose and connection, and have a sustainable lifestyle — but this is a by-product of the process, not the goal itself. mental health is more closely connected to finding meaning, than to finding happiness.

Myth: I don’t care about other people; I just want to feel okay within myself.

Truth: You will never feel truly okay in a world beset by inequality, nastiness, and poor distribution of resources. The world is connected in many ways, and things that might feel distant currently (such as climate change, geopolitical conflict, or economic policy) will inevitably come to affect your life. filling your own cup first is important, but a mentally healthy and meaningful life inevitably requires social connections and contribution to the wellbeing of other people. exclusively tending to your own thoughts, feelings, and wants won’t create the broader social conditions all humans need to have a good life. equally, ignoring your own needs and only giving to other people will also leave you unhappy and stressed.

Do you believe any of these myths? If yes, how does this play out in how you live your life? And what is one simple step you can take to move away from it?

Dr Ahona Guha

Dr Ahona Guha is a clinical and forensic psychologist. She works with victims of abuse and trauma, and clients with a range of other difficulties — such as anxiety, depression, perfectionism, burn-out, and relationship problems. She also works with perpetrators of harmful behaviours to assess risk, and provides treatment to reduce the risk they pose to others. Ahona is the author of Reclaim: understanding complex trauma and those who abuse (Scribe 2023) and Life Skills for a Broken World (Scribe 2024).

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