The Biggest Myth About Coping With Mental Illness

When experiencing psychological distress, people first use self-soothing techniques and social support.

When experiencing psychological distress, people first use self-soothing techniques and social support.

It is commonly believed that people in mental distress fail to use healthy coping strategies and are not resilient.

In other words, people with mental health problems are thought ‘weak’.

This is a myth.

New research reveals that many people experiencing mental health problems are resilient and already use many healthy strategies like distraction and meditation.

Indeed, these healthy strategies work up to a point — it is just that their levels of distress are too great.

The conclusions come from a survey of 509 young people who were asked about their mental health and any strategies they used to cope with it.

Professor Helen Stallman, the study’s first author, explained the results:

“We found that the majority of extremely distressed people already used healthy coping methods such as mindfulness techniques before turning to unhealthy methods to feel better such as emotional eating, aggression, alcohol, drugs and self-harm, social withdrawal and suicidality.”

When experiencing psychological distress, people started by using self-soothing techniques and social support.

When these did not work to alleviate mental pain, some moved on to seek professional support.

Once people were experiencing very high levels of distress, they tended to use more unhealthy ways of coping like drink, drugs, social withdrawal and worse.

Professor Helen Stallman, the study’s first author, said:

“What we have found busts the myth that mental health services and workers should encourage extremely distressed people to build resilience or learn healthy coping strategies like relaxing or distracting activities.

Support should not focus on ‘fixing’ the person who is suffering, it should focus on other ways to help reduce their overwhelming distress.

While we may consider people in mental distress to be lacking in resilience, they are the most resilient people but have too much to cope with.”

Professor Stallman advocates a model called “Care, Collaborate, Connect.”

She explains:

“‘Care’ is the initial intervention when someone is upset, so listening without interrupting and validating their experience.

‘Collaborate’ starts with asking how they are coping and ‘connect’ involves suggesting they talk to a health professional, like their GP, if things keep getting them down.”

The study was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders Reports (Stallman et al., 2020).


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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.