It’s sometimes easy to focus on what mental illness has taken away. Moments, opportunities or maybe even relationships. But we wanted to know what people who live with mental illnesses have gained from their experiences — how mental illness has actually made them better.

So we asked our mental health community to tell us an expected way living with a mental illness has made them better. Their answers prove there’s so much more to living with a mental illness than struggle and hardship.

Of course, not everyone feels this way, but we hope one of these answers might inspire you:

1. “I’ve struggled with mental illness since I was 13, and when I went to college, I decided I wanted to study psychology. I fell in love with helping people. I didn’t get the help I needed until it was almost too late. I think my experience with mental illness makes me a better therapist because I want to give people the help I didn’t get.” — MK Knight

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2. “I believe it makes me more empathetic and understanding of others, both people with mental illness and without it. It opens my heart!” — Marlena Davis

3. “I’m more compassionate — in tune with a deeper level of understanding. I know the lies of ‘I’m OK.’ Really? Because you don’t look OK. Your body language is screaming out I’m struggling.” — Sarah Jane Johns

4. “I’ve become more determined. I’m determined to live a life where I accept my illness, but I do not let it define or limit my potential. My illness has challenged me to achieve my goals yet remain in balance within my brain’s needs.” — Jessica Ostergaard

5. “I took the broken woman from the white psychiatric holding room and created from the ruins a person who had a different strength — bravery.” — Sheri Little

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6. “As a student nurse, my experience has allowed me to see that illness is illness. It doesn’t have to wear a label, but deserves the same respect.” — Ginger Giannoni

7. “I’m a lot more empathetic to what others are going through. I’m less likely to jump to a harsh conclusion about someone than I was when I was younger.” — Courtney Keesee

8. “Because of one of my mental illnesses (obsessive compulsive disorder), I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings. Nothing gets by me; I notice everything.” — Nikki Chalker

9. “It has made me more compassionate. I never imagined I would ever be in that dark place that is depression, that I would lose jobs, opportunities, friends, time. I thought I’d be successful at 27. A doctor. A lawyer. A something. Well, thanks, depression… I’m not. But I am compassionate. I am empathic. I’m able to see the good in those who face the darkness because I’ve been there myself. Thanks, depression.” — Phil Rose Sulzen

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10. “It helps me connect with and understand the young people I work with. Knowing their struggles and having gone through some of them myself, I’m able to point them in the direction of help and support them through that.” — Alana Reid

11.I find my experiences have helped others who are going through similar situations. I’ve become a resource to a few of my friends who are depressed or now discovering they are bipolar.” — Shannon Trevino

12. “I’ve gotten help from an amazing team, friends and family. I now know I want to give back and help others, too. So I’ve become a mental health advocate and want to major in psychology.” — Arielle Smith

13. “I’ve become my own best advocate because I finally found my voice.” — Brittany Isabella

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14. “Sometimes it’s impossible for me to get mad at someone because I can recognize the reasons why they did what they did, and I empathize with it!” — Alyse Ruriani

15. “I’ve learned to see myself and my emotions in a positive light. I’ve learned not to judge a person immediately and stop to consider he or she may be fighting invisible battles. — Erin MacNeil

16. “Generalized anxiety disorder makes me prone to overthinking. To overcome this, I learned in high school to set a time limit and mind map the process I’m looking at, then put it away, come back later, and find the best ideas out of all of it to focus on implementing. Now, as a programmer, this same set of tools helps me identify particulars to focus on, avoid over-evaluation and take action.” — Tommie Matherne

17. “I’ve become more open and honest with myself and others. I’m also more open to asking for help if I need it.” — Lucynda Slattery

18. “My depression has shown me I am a warrior. I am strong. I know I can make through anything.” — Kiona Johnson

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19. “It’s taught me to love myself unconditionally.” — Ruth Martin

20. “Self-perception. I think you learn to be more in tune with your whole body.” — JayCee Morgan

21. “I discovered only I can meet my needs. No one else can do that for me.” — Susan Reed

22. “It’s made me realize life does get better, even if it’s just for a short period of time.” — Abigayle Petty

23. “My depression has heightened my compassion for others. I seem to pick up when someone is having a challenge. It’s easy to see masks of others. Also, I’m a much better listener, open to others if they need an ear.” — Jory Pradjinski

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24. “Living with severe depression and anxiety taught me not to take anything for granted.” — Ashley Searcy

25. “Since having my daughter, I’ve learned my depression and anxiety are part of me, but not all of me. I’ve found strength in me to like myself the way I am. I cry if I need to, relax when I have to and smile at others knowing maybe they needed it.” — Kati Kainulainen

26. “I know how to help guide others down the path. I can hold your hand when you get your diagnosis. I won’t judge you when you get sick.” — Katie Pico-Conner

27. “My illness has taught me to value my life for the very first time — to appreciate it for all of its flaws and forked roads. The depths I’ve crawled back from have made me realize this is the only life I get, and I will make it a worthy one, struggles be damned.” — Lyss Trayers

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28. “I look back on all the times I was unable to advocate for myself because of severe depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder — it’s shown me how important it is for people to have someone advocating for them.” — Sarah Faith Gaspar

29. “It helped me to realize my life’s calling — helping kids with behavioral issues learn how to better express themselves.” — Dylan Jonathen Kirchhoff

30. “It has brought my siblings and I closer together since we all suffer with anxiety and/or panic disorder. We can relate to each other and that’s very comforting.” — Crystal Leigh Knippa

31. “Depression and anxiety taught me to prioritize myself and to ask for help when I need it. I didn’t do that until it was almost too late.” — Still Sunflowers: my life with endometriosis

32. “It’s made me realize sometimes the way to comfort people is just to be present.” — Jenna Bagnini

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*Answers have been edited and shortened.


The other day I was talking to a member of my organization, the Awareness Network. As usual, the conversation turned to mental illness stigma. The question is, “Why is the stigma around mental illness so much stronger than around most physical illnesses?” This is just a guess, but maybe it’s because unlike physical illnesses, all mental illnesses are thrown into a basket together and painted with a  broad brush. To some, they are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Think about it. Someone with diabetes isn’t described as a “physically ill person” the same way someone with depression is described as being “mentally ill.” Physical illnesses vary in symptoms, causes and severity and are treated as such. The same cannot be said about mental illnesses. “Mentally ill” people suffer from “mental illness.” What does that even mean?

The truth is that there are over 200 classified mental illnesses. When we group them all together, no one is the better for it. Lack of knowledge and understanding is what leads to stigma. How can we expect someone to understand anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. when they’re all grouped together as being the same thing?

There are plenty of months, weeks, and days dedicated to the awareness of specific kinds of physical illnesses ranging from Sepsis Awareness Month to National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month? There are almost none dedicated to specific mental illnesses and there are less than 10 focusing on “mental illness awareness.”

Not all people with mental illness are the same and they should not be treated or cared for in the same ways. Someone with cancer is treated differently than someone with kidney stones, because people know the difference. People are educated. The same cannot be said for most mental illnesses and that, I think, is part of what leads to stigma.

Those of us who advocate for people with mental illnesses or live with a mental illness need to speak out and we need to be specific. When talking about an illness, we should name it and explain it. Simply saying “mentally ill” won’t educate or benefit anyone. Hearing the words “depression,” “anxiety,” “bipolar” and “schizophrenia” should evoke different understandings. Just as someone knows and understands the difference between a broken arm and the flu, people should know the difference between OCD and panic disorder. That understanding begins with real, honest, and specific conversations. It’s beyond important — it’s essential to ending stigma.

When symptoms arrive without explanation, it can be a scary, confusing time for someone with a mental illness.

Eventually, for those who do receive a diagnosis, answers slowly unravel. Experiences are given names and words like “treatment,” “medication” and “therapy” might become part of a new normal. And while a diagnosis doesn’t change who you are, it can change your journey and perspective.

We asked our community of people with mental illnesses to tell us one message they have for their pre-diagnosed selves. Even if you’re long past getting a diagnosis, their answers may serve as a much needed reminder of how far you’ve come.

Here’s what they wish they could tell themselves:

1. “You’re not making this up — it’s not all in your head. Find one person you can cling to for support and find some help. My life would have taken a completely different course if I could have heard this message when I was young.” — Sarah Faith Gaspar

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2. “You don’t have to hide away and keep what you’re feeling a secret. It will be so much easier if you reach out instead of pushing the people who love you away.” — Arielle Smith

3. “You are not crazy, you are not alone; this is a physical illness. You are sick, but there is help, there is hope.” — Cynthia Castleberry

4. “Not only will you survive, but you will realize you are strong, compassionate and determined to find your joy!” — Sherrie Tyler

5. “It’s better to know than not to know. And it takes a strong person to walk through the doors and ask for help.” — Vicki Pharris

6. “I would tell my younger self that what I will be dealing with is a disease or disorder like anything physical, and that it is eminently treatable. I would offer my younger self compassion and understanding, and explain to him he is not beyond help.” — Kevin Joseph

7. “Don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you it’s your imagination.” — Aurora Jade

8. “Telling other people about what’s going on isn’t as scary as you might think. In fact, it’s downright liberating.” — Laura Day

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9. “You will still be the same person — before and after the diagnosis. The only difference is that now you’re able to better understand your feelings and actions, as well as get the appropriate help to reach your full potential. A diagnosis — knowing why — can be a life-changing difference.” — Andriana Vinnitchok

10. “Do not be afraid to ask for help! Something I wish I had been able to do is ask for help in my teens when symptoms first started manifesting. It took until I reached 45 to accept my mental illnesses as something I shouldn’t be ashamed of. Asking for help is a sign of strength.” — Dawn Skidmore

11. “You will not be your diagnoses. You’re still the same person you were beforehand. You just have to do things a little differently now. I wish I would have learned that lesson sooner.” — Sarah Krueger

12. “The road is hell. You will find little comfort. People will not understand. You will feel like ending everything… but wait, and think. Ending it is permanent, but this… this is temporary. You will find victory, strength, comfort and know who is there for you always. You will find understanding. You are not alone. Stay strong. This is not the end.” — Kiona Johnson

13. “It’s not as bad as you think. You will be OK. Cultivate friendships. Be honest with people about your symptoms. Avoid harmful people. Accept opportunities. Breathe.” — Becky O’Grady

14. “Work on self-care every day.” — Margaret Donovan

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15. “Things are going to get tough. It may seem like you will never get better, but you’re going to meet people who will help you find the light at the end of the tunnel. You’re going to be OK.” — Alli Noelle Wright

16. “You’re not making this up. You’re not faking it. You’re not doing it for attention. The drugs and drinks won’t make it go away. You need the help you asked for before. Please don’t be ashamed.” — Rachel Kathleen Mary Walker

17. “It’s better to walk into the ER and say, ‘I’m having thoughts of hurting myself,’ than the alternative.” — Terrie Karp

18. “Don’t allow your illness to make your life choices.” — Ginger Giannoni

19. “You don’t have to hide what you are feeling from people. I know all the stuff you’re feeling is scary. But it’s OK to reach out and tell someone you are hurting.” — MK Knight

20. “Undoubtedly, there will be days you fall down the rabbit hole. Trust me, you won’t fall forever, because the people who love you, truly love you, will always be there to catch you.” — Holly Bonner

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21. “Self-doubt is your enemy. Love yourself; you are worth it!” — Kira Schoultz

22. “Don’t wait so long to get help.” — Caid Kin

23. “Please ask more questions about what your diagnosis really means.” — Jennifer Lovacheff

24. “It’s not your fault.” — Lesley Rose

25. “Forgive yourself. Distracting, self-destructive behavior is just that — distracting and self-destructive.” — Olivia Limón

26. “It’s OK to be you. Your mental health does not define you. Find the right medications and stay on them.” — Tamesha Scott

27. “You belong in this world just as much as everyone else does.” — Jennifer Sebits

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28. “There’s a difference between feeling sad and being stuck in depression. Let your mom in. Talk to your counselor. Don’t let others just do what they want. Stand up for yourself like the adults keep saying. It might be ‘in your head,’ but that is in your brain.” — Stephanie Campbell

29. “Just because your anxiety means constant fear does not mean you’re weak, no matter what people say. You are strong for being able to get through all that fear and still live a full life.” — Brittany Breen

30. “Someday you’re going to look back on the woman you were and wonder where she went. But don’t worry, you’ll be stronger than you ever imagined. P.S. It’s not a heart attack; it’s a panic attack. Save yourself many trips to the ER.” — Alicia Chesnutt

31. “You’re not doing this to yourself — no matter what others say. You are not incompetent or incapable — you are just sick right now, and eventually doctors will help you get better. But don’t stop telling the important people in your life what’s going on. They will help, they just won’t know what’s going on in your head if you don’t tell them out loud.” — Hillarie Eeg

32. “In a little while, your entire world is going to rocked and forever altered. Dreams will fall away, friendships will fail. Your body will let you down in ways you’ve never imagined. Take heart, there will be grace for every moment and you will rise from the ashes. You might forever be changed, but you will always be you.” — Claire Nieuwoudt

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33. “It is OK to acknowledge your thoughts are not fully within your control. And, soon, you’ll have an incredible significant other who will make certain you know you’re not alone in your battle.” — Kristy Steele Rose

34. “You will still be the same person you have always been, just more peaceful. Getting better doesn’t mean losing your identity.” — Martha Katz

35. “Ride out the wave of hell because I promise you it can’t last forever. And what’s waiting on the other side is better than anything you have experienced thus far in life. You will grow into an empathetic and caring person along the road to recovery that will guide the rest of your life. You might think you are losing your dream, career or even your life, when in reality it is simply morphing into something better and more meaningful. Growing pains hurt. But you’ll come out happier, I promise!” — Adele Espy

36. “You deserve to be loved. And one day you’ll understand why.” — Patty Tatum

37. “The process of asking for help and seeking treatment won’t be easy, but it will absolutely be worth it. Sharing your story will help others.” — Nicole Campbell

38. “At last you have answers for what you’ve gone through. The journey will not be easy, but at least it will be named.” — Jenna Renee Gillit

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39. “It’s OK to have a mental illness. Do not be ashamed, embarrassed or feel less of a person.” — Sarah Garrant

40. “You are not the only one like this. There are others. And they think the world of you.” — Deborah Kolbe

41. “Ignore the ignorant people.” — Chris Wilson

42. “Quit the booze. Find a psychiatrist you trust. Find a therapist you trust. Go to the appointments! Take the meds. Talk about your feelings. Show your people how much you love them and accept their love and support. Do everything possible to let go of shame and guilt.” — Nicole Shaw

43. “You are stronger than you will ever believe yourself to be. You will go through some of the toughest struggles and not only survive, but thrive.” — Julianne Leow

44. “This is not your normal self. There is a name for it and it is treatable.” — Sarah Clark

45.Help isn’t easy, fast or convenient — but it is worth it. You will get through it. You are worth it. You have a purpose.” — Janelle Eykyn

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*Answers have been edited and shortened.

Editor’s note: These answers are based on personal experience and shouldn’t be taken as professional advice. Talk to your doctor before starting on any medication.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

Day in and day out, we use a lot of different expressions, like, “You gave me a heart attack!” Did this person really experience a myocardial infarction? No way, they just got really scared. Or when we say, “Break a leg!” do we really wish for this person to break their bone? Of course not. We’re just wishing them good luck.

Many expressions like this are used in our everyday life with no extra thought, but the one expression I see used often, and usually out of context, is “Ugh! I am so depressed!” Now, does this really mean you’re depressed? Or are you just feeling sad? You see, these are two very different terms. One is a normal feeling for a human to experience from time to time, the other can be a mental illness that affects millions of Americans.

Let’s think about this for a minute. If our blood sugar dropped and we felt clammy and light-headed, would we say “I am so diabetic!” No. We don’t use other medical diagnoses loosely, so why are mental illnesses not the same? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Oh my goodness, you are so bipolar!” Or how about, “My OCD is kicking in!” when you’re talking about being organized? These are just a few of the many illnesses many of us have thrown around in daily conversation with no extra thought.

Now, I’m not trying to discredit anyone who’s said this and actually is depressed, but I am trying to advocate for the use of this term only when you’re truly experiencing it. As someone who lives with depression, I take offense when a peer thinks they are “depressed” because their boyfriend ignored them for a day or they received a bad grade on a test. Depression doesn’t just go away when we make up with our significant other or do the extra credit to raise our grade. Depression lingers for weeks, months and sometimes years. Maybe what you are feeling is stress, sadness or fatigue, but please do not use a serious medical diagnosis I fight every day as a synonym for sadness.

Each time depression, or any other illness for that matter, is used in place of sadness, I feel the mental health community gets a little less credit, like our diagnosis is equal to your everyday sadness, or like the demons we face aren’t really demons at all. It makes me feel like I’m just not as strong as you. I can assure you that I’m stronger than I’ve ever been because of my depression. So please, next time you catch yourself thinking you are “so depressed,” try to think of another way to describe how you truly feel.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold his misconception? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

I was in the back of a Walmart a few years ago, and I was walking around and looking at things before I did my actual grocery shopping. I’ve always liked just walking around to see what I might like to buy later on. On this particular day, it had been raining off and on, so it was cloudy out at times. As I walked through Walmart, the store would go from bright to dark. Because it had a glass ceiling, the clouds moving around outside were actually able to change the amount of light inside the store. And once I reached the back of the store, it seemed darker than when I had first entered the store. For some reason, this scared me.

I told myself there was nothing to be afraid of. After all, it was the middle of the day, and I was in Walmart with other people. And the lights were on even though at times it didn’t look like it. This darkness due to the clouds moving happened twice more, and then I began to fall apart. My heart started racing. It felt like it was going to come flying out of my chest. I got sweaty and panicky. Then everything just started rushing past me as if I was in a movie being fast-forwarded. By the time I reached into my purse for a tissue to wipe the sweat from my forehead, about 30 seconds has passed since I felt the first of pat of a racing heart. I grabbed my shopping cart and made my way to the front of the store as quickly as I could. I parked my cart by the registers and walked outside.

Once outside, I bent over, trying to slow my breathing down, but being outside didn’t help. So I ran to my car, jumped in and locked all the doors. I sat there for a minute before I decided to drive home. I pulled in front of my house and jumped out, ignoring everyone who was outside. I ran inside and jumped in my bed and pulled the covers over me. This is where I stayed for three days. I barely got up the nerve to walk downstairs to join the family to eat and see what the kids were up to.

It was a week before I ventured out again. I had agreed to go to the grocery store, but not Walmart. Inside other stores, I appeared to be OK. It would take a few months before I tried Walmart again. And it would be a hit-and-miss depending on how my body reacted to being there.

I went to see a psychiatrist, and he informed me that I had suffered a panic attack. And since these attacks happened outside my home, they were most likely a result of agoraphobia.

What is agoraphobia? For me, it is a fear of being outside my home. I tend to shy away from large superstores. I don’t like crowds or long lines. And some days I can’t even talk myself into going to the drive-thru at the pharmacy. I want to be home. It’s my safety zone.

It’s the panic attacks that get me. It renders me a mess. I begin trembling. I have trouble speaking. My heart races. I get so hot that I began sweating as if I’m having a hot flash. My breathing gets heavy, which then causes me to have an asthma attack, and then I have to use my emergency inhaler. I don’t want to held, hugged, comforted or told to calm down. Because at that precise moment in my mind, I am dying and my world is caving in, and there’s nothing either of us can do about it.

And it’s not until I’m in my safety zone that I begin to feel better. For me, it is my bed. After having an agoraphobic moment, it’s usually three days before I venture out onto the porch. And if I’m lucky, to the mailbox. But it’s typically a good five to 10 days before I can make my way out into the actual public. And if I begin to fill a little anxiety coming on, I try to focus on my safety zone. Sometimes knowing it’s there and that I’ll be home soon enough will help. Sometimes. Not always.

Having agoraphobia can take up a lot of headspace. The key is to widen your safety zone. The more you shrink your safety zone, say from your whole house to just a room in your house, the harder it will be to get that space back. The key is to seek help. Don’t let agoraphobia shrink your life.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

When I was in my early 20s — before my diagnosis — I identified as a woman, as a social worker, as an aunt, sister, daughter, wife, liberal, etc.

Then, with my original diagnosis of bipolar disorder, my entire view of myself changed. There was a shift inside of me. I had to make mental illness part of who I was because now I had a label.

Was it the biggest part of who I was? Did it influence or outweigh the rest of my identity? I didn’t know the answers to these questions. I think the way the medical establishment gives out a diagnosis and then expects you to come up with a way of reorganizing your identity to include the new label is often cruel.

I guess that’s where psychotherapy comes in. I adjusted without therapy, though. In fact, I haven’t been in psychotherapy since before my diagnosis (with the exception of a few sessions with a therapist while I was psychotic eight years ago).

But if I had worked with a good and ethical therapist at the time of my diagnosis, I might have not lived for two 20 years in silence, ashamed of revealing my illness. I might have been able to see my diagnosis as it is — a disease like any other. I might have developed the confidence and self-esteem necessary to live openly as someone with a mental illness.

Instead, I hobbled along with my husband in the dark for nearly 20 years, keeping my illness a secret from the majority of people in our lives. It’s possible that I over-identified with being mentally ill, and was ashamed of so much of myself because of it. I worry about people over-identifying with their illness, who see their illness as the biggest part of how they define themselves, living their lives through a lens of a diagnosis instead of thousands of other wonderful things.

I try not to identify too much with my illness now. I try to identify with things like being a woman, being a partner, being a writer, being a student. I put all of these things before having schizophrenia.

I read blogs and articles written by people with a mental illness every day, and I see it all the time — the primary way that some people define themselves is as a mentally ill person. There is nothing wrong with living without shame, but I believe to tie yourself up in your struggles first instead of your strengths can hinder your happiness.

I’m an old-timer where mental illness is concerned, and I’ve learned a thing or two. If I could give people a bit of advice to have the chance at the best life, I would say: search and find those things that make you happy and identify with them first. Be a painter. Be a writer. Be a poet. Be a musician. Be an accountant. Be a mother. Be a father. Be a mechanic. Be a teacher. Be a friend. Be a partner.

I believe we should take a list of all the things we are, and at the very end tack on the label — schizophrenia or bipolar, or anxiety disorder, or depressed. Make your mental illness the very least of the ways you identify. You are so much more than a diagnosis, and you have to prove it to yourself before anyone else will believe you.

A version of this post originally appeared on A Journey With You.

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