Why It Matters: Understanding Mental Disorders

Why learn about abnormal psychology?

Homeless man wearing a blanket with barefeet walking on a cold street, with others walking around in heavy coats.

Figure 1. Mental illnesses are common in the United States. Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (51.5 million in 2019), of which there were an estimated 13.1 million adults, or 5.2% of the population aged 18 or older with a serious mental illness. A 2015 study showed that 45% of the American homeless had some form of mental illness, and 25% had a more serious mental illness at some point during their lives.

Welcome to the study of abnormal psychology, sometimes referred to as psychopathology, clinical psychology, or the study of mental illness. In this module, we will define what psychological disorders are, how they are diagnosed and classified, and how assessments are used to identify them. There are many myths surrounding mental illness, so let’s begin by addressing a few of them.

Mental Health Myths

Myth: Mental health problems don’t affect me.

Fact: Mental health problems are actually very common. In 2020:

  • Over one in five American adults experienced a mental health issue.[1]
  • Nearly one in 10 adults experienced a period of major depression and 17.0% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.[2]
  • One in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Suicide is consistently considered to be about the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It accounts for the loss of more than 45,000 American lives each year, more than double the number of lives lost to homicide. Learn more about mental health problems at mentalhealth.gov.[3]

Myth: Children do not experience mental health problems.

Fact: Even very young children may show early warning signs of mental health concerns. These mental health problems are often clinically diagnosable, and can be a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors.

Half of all mental health disorders show first signs before a person turns 14 years old, and three-quarters of mental health disorders begin before age 24.

Unfortunately, less than 20% of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need. Early mental health support can help a child before problems interfere with other developmental needs.

Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.

Fact: The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only three to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. You probably know someone with a mental health problem and don’t even realize it because many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.

Myth: People with mental health needs, even those who are managing their mental illness, cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.

Fact: People with mental health problems are just as productive as other employees. Employers who hire people with mental health problems report good attendance and punctuality as well as motivation, good work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees.

When employees with mental health problems receive effective treatment, it can result in

  • lower total medical costs,
  • increased productivity,
  • lower absenteeism, and
  • decreased disability costs.

Myth: Personality weakness or character flaws cause mental health problems. People with mental health problems can snap out of it if they try hard enough.

Fact: Mental health problems have nothing to do with being lazy or weak and many people need help to get better. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including the following:

  • biological factors, such as genes, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry
  • life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse
  • family history of mental health problems

People with mental health problems can get better and many recover completely. Learn more about mental health recovery at mentalhealth.gov.

Myth: There is no hope for people with mental health problems. Once a friend or family member develops mental health problems, they will never recover.

Fact: Studies show that people with mental health problems get better and many recover completely. Recovery refers to the process in which people are able to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities. There are more treatments, services, and community support systems than ever before, and they work.

Myth: Therapy and self-help are a waste of time. Why bother when you can just take a pill?

Fact: Treatment for mental health problems varies depending on the individual and could include medication, therapy, or both. Many individuals work with a support system during the healing and recovery process.

Myth: I can’t do anything for a person with a mental health problem.

Fact: Friends and loved ones can make a big difference. Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental health problems and less than 20% of children and adolescents receive needed treatment. Friends and family can be important influences to help someone get the treatment and services they need by

  • reaching out and letting them know you are available to help;
  • helping them access mental health services;
  • learning and sharing the facts about mental health, especially if you hear something that isn’t true;
  • treating them with respect, just as you would anyone else; and
  • refusing to define them by their diagnosis or using labels such as “crazy.”

Myth: Prevention doesn’t work. It is impossible to prevent mental illnesses.

Fact: Prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders focuses on addressing known risk factors such as exposure to trauma that can affect the chances that children, youth, and young adults will develop mental health problems. Promoting the social-emotional well-being of children and youth leads to the following:

  • higher overall productivity
  • better educational outcomes
  • lower crime rates
  • stronger economies
  • lower health care costs
  • improved quality of life
  • increased lifespan
  • improved family life

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental illness. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Major depression. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression
  3. Facts about suicide. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, July 5). Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/facts/index.html