What are the most common - and most damaging - myths about mental illness out there? Every semester I collect 'reflection papers' from the 300 undergrads in my courses, so I've developed a pretty good inventory of these myths over the years. You'd probably guess many of them . . . things like:
"Depressed people could just 'snap out of it' if they really wanted to";
"Schizophrenic patients have multiple personalities";
"If you have an eating disorder, you were probably sexually abused".
There are dozens more that come quickly to mind. Maybe I'll do a whole post on it some day. But if I had to nominate the one myth that's the most widespread and damaging in its influence, I think I might pick the "myth of mind-body dualism".
This is the idea that the mind and the body (brain) are completely different entities, made of completely different 'stuff'. It's an idea with an impressive pedigree (luminaries like Plato and Descartes), but that's not why most people believe it. No, it's believed because dualism just seems so obviously true. After all, it feels for all the world like there's a completely non-physical self inside - thinking and feeling and acting on its own, regardless of what the rest of the body is up to.
Anthropologists tell us that remote people groups all over the world are mind-body dualists. They've yet to encounter a clan, band, or tribe that's not. Likewise, researchers have found that children are natural born dualists - making claims about non-physical minds as early as age 4-5.
But science, of course, is about discovering things that aren't obvious. Sometimes it means discovering that our most obvious intuitions are dead wrong:
It feels for all the world like the sun revolves around the earth, and for thousands of years everyone just assumed it did. It seems perfectly obvious that light can't be both a wave and a stream of particles at the same time, but it is. It seems obvious that living things have to be animated by some essence of life (elan vital) that's fundamentally different from non-living chemicals, but we know now that it's not.
Likewise, we know from neuroscience that the mind is what the brain does. In fact, the mind and the brain are flip sides of the same underlying reality.
This means anything that changes your brain also changes your mind. But perhaps more importantly - it means anything that changes your mind also changes your brain.
If, as a psychologist, I can help change a patient's thoughts, I've also (by definition) helped change his brain. Changing behavior changes the brain. Changing feelings changes the brain.
In a nutshell: experience changes the brain.
Why is this important? Because when it comes to mental illness, so many people automatically assume, "Oh, well the doctor said I probably have a 'chemical imbalance' or something wrong with my brain, so that means I have to take drugs to fix it." But if we understand that experience changes the brain - that the mind and brain are flip sides of the same underlying reality - we won't make this logical error.
In most cases, so-called 'chemical imbalance' may be just as readily cured by a healing experience as by a healing chemical.