As many as 450 million people have a mental or behavioral disorder worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates. Yet despite its prevalence, mental illnesses remain stigmatized in many cultures, including in the United States.

“Since we can’t ‘see’ a mental illness in the same way we can see a broken bone or cancer cells, there is this belief that these illnesses are not ‘real,’ or at the very least are not ‘medical’ illnesses,” says Alexa Moody, founder and executive of Please Live, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of mental illness and preventing suicide. “This simply isn’t true. You can actually see the differences on brain scans.”

Mental illness is legitimate

Depression is marked by imbalanced chemicals in the brain that lead to feelings of unhappiness or a lack of fulfillment. “When these chemicals are off-balance, those emotions are difficult or sometimes impossible to achieve, so you take medicine to correct the chemical imbalance,” Moody says. “It’s the same as someone who is a diabetic—their body is not producing the correct amounts of insulin, so they take medication to correct that imbalance.”

That mental illness isn’t legitimate is just one myth in this field. Another, Moody says, is that talking about suicide will “plant the idea” in youths’ heads. This misconception is commonly shared by adults, school administrators, parents and community providers, she notes.

“Since we can’t ‘see’ a mental illness... there is this belief that these illnesses are not ‘real,’ or at the very least are not ‘medical’ illnesses.”

Addressing the issues

“This ends up making the suicidal person feel alone and misunderstood, which makes suicidal thoughts worse as they believe that no one cares or that there is no way out,” says Moody, who notes that, with early intervention, many people do not have suicidal thoughts again. “We must address suicide and mental illness, and address it frankly and factually, for people to feel comfortable to get the help they need.”

As a mental illness survivor herself, Moody has a message of hope for others who may be suffering: With proper treatment, most people can and will get better. “Wellness and recovery are possible,” she explains, “and you don’t have to live with depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts for the rest of your life.”