Mental Health Myths: BUSTED

Mental Health Myths - Illustration of a fiery pheonix above a warrior prepared to battle it

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Posted in: Parenting Concerns

Topics: Anxiety, Depression, Mental Illness + Psychiatric Disorders

Mental health myths can increase stigma and prevent parents and caring adults from taking important actions to support children and teens, even when the best intentions are there. Below, child and adolescent psychiatrists Gene Beresin, MD, MA and Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH share the truth about about nine common mental health myths.

You can also listen to their conversation about these myths on our podcast. Tune in below, or search for “Shrinking It Down” wherever your get your podcasts.

Myths BUSTED, by Dr. Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin headshot

Gene Beresin, MD, MA

1. MYTH: Asking about suicide will cause your child to become suicidal.

MYTH BUSTED:  It turns out, it is a longstanding myth that talking about suicide with your child will cause suicidal behavior. It also turns out that while about one in six high school students have seriously thought about attempting suicide, most kids feel relieved to be asked about self-harm and suicide.

Still, there is often considerable anxiety about having the conversation. It’s something both parents and kids are anxious about but once you get started, the anxiety lessens considerably. The bottom line is this: Conversations make a difference. They help you as a parent know what your child is thinking about. And once you have opened the door to this discussion, you can ask about whether they have just thought about it, whether they intend to do something, whether they have a plan, or if they have tried in any way. These are key questions to help you know your level of concern – that is whether you have anything to worry about. Provide reassurance that your child can confide in you; that you can be trusted; and that you are there to help them. And plan on multiple short conversations over time. If you have worries, talk to your child’s pediatrician, or consider getting a mental health evaluation. If you or your child are in crisis:
— Call: 1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
— Text: TALK to 741741 (Crisis Text Line)

2. MYTH: Depression in young people is difficult or impossible to treat.

MYTH BUSTED: The great news is that two out of three of kids (and adults) with depression are very responsive to treatment. There are many approaches to taking care of depression in young people, including psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), family therapy, meditation, and medications. The best results come from combining treatments.

About one in five (20%) teens and young adults suffer from depression. I often hear from parents and caregivers that this “runs in families” and is very difficult – if not impossible – to treat. It’s true that some severe depressions, particularly if combined with other challenges like anxiety, substance use, or other mental health disorders are more challenging.

It’s a good idea for you to learn more about the signs of depression in young people; the treatments; and what you and others in the life of your child can do to help. All of us need support and validation, and it’s especially true for anyone suffering from depression.

3. MYTH: Violent video games cause violent behavior in kids.

MYTH BUSTED: The research that is sound shows that violent video games do not cause aggression. What is true is that if a child is already violent, aggressive, or can’t tell reality from fantasy, they may get worked up after playing violent video games – but even this accounts for only about 5% of kids (one in 20). Most kids that play these games do not act violent after playing the games in the real world. They know the games are make believe. There is a long history of wrongly assuming that media causes aggressive or aggressive behavior.

Many kids, teens, and young adults play video games, and while there are plenty that are not violent, some are. This has led many parents to worry that these games will cause violent behavior. Unfortunately, this falsehood has been promoted in the media, even linking some school shootings or terrorist behavior back to playing violent video games.

Something else that is true? You know your child best. As parents, we need to be aware if the games our kids play and the shows they watch on TV, and ensure they are developmentally appropriate for them. You could decide based on the age of your child; their sensitivity to violence or adult themes; their personality; and knowing what they can or cannot tolerate. Know what your kid is playing. Ask about it. Even better, play some with your child or watch, so you can talk with them about what they are doing, see what kind of fun they are having, and observe them after they play to see if they act differently after they play.

4. MYTH: The COVID-19 pandemic and lack of being in school has caused irreversible losses in social-emotional development.

MYTH BUSTED: While the time away from learning these skills in school has been delayed, the truth – and the cool thing about being human – is that what is delayed in emotional development can be made up. Catching up is always possible. So, don’t worry that COVID has caused damage that cannot be fixed.

All of us, parents and kids alike have been under a lot of stress due to COVID-19. And for kids of all ages, there have been increases in depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Even more, the kinds of learning that takes place in real time with other kids – what is called social-emotional learning – has been lost these past 18 months. The important thing is to monitor your child and pay attention to areas in which you see them falling behind. And not just you – their teachers, coaches, grandparents, and others who know your kids, can all play a role. Keep track of what they need to make up – whether it’s an academic skill, or a social, relationship skill. If you know where they’re behind, then at home, in community groups, spiritual groups, or back to school, we can all work together to help teach our kids what they are missing.

All of us – including adults – have gaps in our development, but with the right attention, the skills we are weak in can be strengthened.

Myths BUSTED, by Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins

Khadijah Booth Watkins headshot

Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH

5. MYTH: A child with a psychiatric disorder is damaged for life. They will never recover.

MYTH BUSTED:  A psychiatric disorder does not determine a child’s future. A young person diagnosed with a mental illness can lead a fulfilled life of happiness, success, and good health.

While it is true that some mental health disorders are lifelong and require ongoing treatment – the same way someone diagnosed with childhood diabetes would need ongoing care – others can have a shorter window of treatment.

Being able to live, have a job, continue one’s education, stay in healthy relationships, and fully participate as a member of the community and society is all part of recovery, and most diagnosed with a mental illness recover, even those who are diagnosed with a chronic condition.

Early intervention is the key, as most mental health disorders begin in childhood or adolescence. Treatment for many disorders is about 70% – 90% effective. There are now a variety of treatments, services, and supports available along with other innovations in medicine. With early identification and proper treatment, the likelihood of overcoming and/or managing symptoms successfully is far greater, lending to a healthy adult life. most diagnosed with chronic or acute conditions will be able to lead healthy, happy productive lives.

6. MYTH: Bad parenting causes in psychiatric disorders.

MYTH BUSTED: By far and large, parents want what’s best for their children and are doing the best that they can with the knowledge and resources they posses. A child’s environment and relationship with their parents are extremely important, which cannot be minimized. But most psychiatric disorders have biological causes. It is true, they can be exacerbated by a child’s environment, but all too often, parents are blamed, judged, and criticized because of their child’s behavior.

Blaming parents, unfortunately, further feeds into the shame and doubt related to mental illness and can result in significant delays in seeking and receiving care for one’s child. The fact is that one in five (20%) children between the ages of 13 and 18 have, or will have, a mental illness, and half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14. Parents are critical to providing support and the necessary care to their children who may be struggling. Judging and criticizing parents causes many to suffer in silence in a shroud of secrecy, and only makes it harder for parents to seek the support they need to best care for their children.

7. MYTH: It’s a phase and they will grow out of mental health problems, or “They’re just being a teenager.”

MYTH BUSTED: All too often, behavioral issues, moodiness, angst, sleeping in, and overeating are chalked up and over-attributed to ‘a phase’ or ‘puberty’ or ‘being a teenager.’ The importance and value of early identification and treatment are too great to be missed and left to chance. Being mindful that more than half of all psychiatric disorders emerge by age of 14, we must be vigilant and discerning. 

Suffering from untreated mental illness as a child can have a tremendous negative impact on school performance, relationships, and self-esteem, and significant negative effects on their adult lives. Early intervention is critical to the success of treatment and their future functioning, and delaying care will more than likely increase the likelihood of a condition that is more debilitating and that will be much more difficult to treat in adulthood.

Children who are struggling depend on their parents to provide them with the necessary supports required to recover. Being aware of the protective role of education, healthy peer relationships, and a sound sense of self plays, it is not surprising that untreated mental illness in childhood has a long-lasting and far-reaching impact on their adult lives.

8. MYTH: If your child has an anxiety disorder, the best thing you can do is help to eliminate their stress and stressful situations, and constantly reassure them that everything will be OK.

MYTH BUSTED: Treating children as though they are fragile does not provide the confidence they need to confront their anxiety and will only serve to feed the anxiety and make it worse. Although it seems like the natural thing to do, it can prevent the healthy development of resilience and coping skills. Learning how to tolerate the anxiety and resulting distress will ultimately allow them to develop the confidence to know that they can function well despite having anxiety.

It is incredibly hard to watch your child suffer, and intuitive for a parent to want to do all in their power to make sure no hurt or harm comes to their child.  But despite best of intentions, we can inadvertently encourage and increase anxiety through excessive reassurance and shielding them from situations that cause anxiety. Providing guidance and support during these periods of anxiety and encouraging the use of their own coping skills and strategies to manage the anxiety will ultimately lessen that anxiety. However, there are times where our efforts as parents are not enough and other intervention is needed. When this occurs, seeking the help of a behavioral therapist can help them recognize their fears and teach them skills and strategies to diffuse them and through gradual exposures, in a controlled environment, the anxiety will begin to diminish. Medication may be helpful when the anxiety is severe and therapy alone doesn’t relieve the suffering and distress.

9. MYTH: If you eat right, exercise, and live a healthy lifestyle, your anxiety and depression will go away.

MYTH BUSTED: These habits can indeed improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, however, diet, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle alone are not curative.

Studies have shown that with a healthy lifestyle and habits our physical and mental health will benefit greatly. We also know that our mental health is sensitive to stress. You can often experience a notable change in mood and anxiety under high stress. While a healthy lifestyle is important in reducing stress, there are also necessary skills and strategies we need to acquire in order to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. To manage symptoms like irrational fears, avoidance behavior, negative thinking, and inability to tolerate distress – there are skills beyond just a healthy lifestyle that allow us to tolerate some experiences, and change how we think and feel, and our behavior.

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Khadijah Booth Watkins

Khadijah Booth Watkins, Associate Director

Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH, is associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and the Associate Director of the Child and...

To learn more about Khadijah, or to contact her directly, please see Our Team.

Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.