Despite great strides in treatment for individuals suffering with mental illness, the myths and stigma concerning diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, depression and other disorders such as schizophrenia continue to swirl, causing those who are affected to sometimes shun treatment, thus exacerbating the situation for both themselves and their families. It’s easy to see why; the history of treating the mentally ill in our country is a long and seamy one, earmarked by tales of the poorly-run asylums of decades past and overcrowded, mismanaged psychiatric hospitals.

Heinous news headlines continually catapult conversation about mental illness to the forefront, as people wonder if this mass murderer or that kidnapper must have been crazy in order to commit their crimes. The everyday horrors which seem to permeate the news may not have mental illness at their core, however. Currently, many individuals diagnosed with certain types of mental disorders live in deinstitutionalized, community-based facilities, but most individuals suffering from these all-too-real diagnoses are functional and live at home with their families. They are not violent or a threat to themselves or others. Many, however, are hiding out in silence, suffering without a diagnosis or treatment and affecting the quality of life for those who share their homes.  

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David Tolin, Ph.D., the director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living, Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine and President-Elect of the Clinical Psychology division of the American Psychological Association, answers some questions and dispels some myths associated with mental illness in the following interview.

What percentage of American homes are affected by someone with mental illness?

“Epidemiological research suggests that approximately one quarter of adults have a mental disorder of some type. In fact, nearly half of all individuals will have a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Serious mental illness however, which is defined as a disorder that creates significant functional impairment, affects approximately five percent, or one in 20 people, at any given time.” 

People often buy into the fable of an unreachable, stereotypically crazy man or woman, as is often portrayed in books and movies. Can you spot a mentally ill person a mile off? What would you consider to be the biggest myths surrounding mental illness?

“Probably the biggest myth is that people with mental illness are dangerous. For the most part, they are not. Another all-pervasive myth is that there is nothing that can be done for someone with a mental illness. This is simply untrue; there are multiple treatments both medical and psychological that have been scientifically demonstrated to result in significant improvements in functioning.”

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Then why the ongoing perception that horrible crimes are committed by mentally ill individuals?

“I am unable to comment on the mental status of people accused of crimes currently being reported in the press, but generally speaking, most people with mental illness are not violent. A subset of people with psychiatric disorders do, however, commit violent crimes. The MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that ’31 percent of people who had both a substance abuse disorder and a psychiatric disorder (a ‘dual diagnosis’) committed at least one act of violence in a year, compared with 18 percent of people with a psychiatric disorder alone.’ However, after controlling the neighborhoods in which people lived as well as the presence of substance use, rates of violence were no longer significantly associated with psychiatric disorders.”    

Does mental illness only affect the person afflicted or does it impact upon their household as well?

“Mental illnesses can affect the entire family. Families of people with a variety of diagnoses, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other disorders, frequently experience high levels of family conflict as well as distress. In addition, the children of people with mental illnesses can experience problems in school as well as in their social interactions, and have trouble making friends or have issues within their friendships. Marriages are at risk when one or both partners are mentally ill, which also affects children.”

What is the legacy of mental illness upon children?

“Children of people with mental illness are at increased risk for having a mental illness themselves. Part of this risk is undoubtedly genetic; we know that parents can pass a biological vulnerability onto their children. Part of the risk is also likely environmental. For example, children of depressed parents tend to get less attention or positive reinforcement, which in turn adds to the risk that they will develop depression later on. But again, treatments continue to improve and are highly effective for many types of mental illnesses; these types of diagnoses do not mean people are doomed to suffer or hide in the shadows.”

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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