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It's OK If They Don't Understand Your Mental Illness

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There’s a lot of stigma around mental illness, which only makes living with one even more difficult. Especially when it feels like your mental illness is controlling your life, and yet everybody else in your world seems to be taking the reigns of their own lives just fine.

And for those who don’t experience it, it’s hard to understand. They’ve never had the depression that keeps them in bed for days, or the body dysmorphic disorder that makes them take showers in the dark. They’ve been lucky.

Some of them may even believe mental illnesses are:

  • a lack of will-power
  • what defines the person
  • for attention-seekers
  • an excuse not to be responsible for yourself

All wrong of course – mental illness is a disease of the mind. It takes control of the brain, the computer-like organ inside your head, controlling thoughts, feeling and even changing some of your behaviors.

Mental illnesses can develop at any stage in life, can be managed with therapy and self-care and, depending on the severity, can let people live an almost “normal” life. I say “almost normal” because most of us with mental illnesses can hide them pretty damn well — sometimes we can just about cope with a normal day, but sometimes we can’t, and that’s fine, too.

I find it unbelievable when I meet someone who hasn’t had a mental illness. To have never hidden in bed because that’s the only place that feels safe or to never have suicidal thoughts is an out-of-this-world concept in my eyes. I can’t imagine what that sort of life is like, so no wonder many people can’t understand what my life is like.

Some of those who don’t understand do their best by trying to treat it like a physical illness, because that’s the only sort of illness they can relate to. They know that hot water bottles make tummies feel better and that resting when you’ve broken your leg is the way to recovery. They know a headache can be caused by dehydration and that exhaustion can be from not eating right or not sleeping enough. Without the experience of a mental illness, they’re not sure how to treat you or how you wish to be treated.

If somebody says the wrong thing, yet you know they have good intentions at heart, I think it’s important to remember they simply don’t understand what you’re going through, but are trying their best to make you feel better the only way they know how. I’d rather have somebody who tries to help than someone who’s too scared away by the stigma of mental illness altogether, or who thinks they can do nothing for me because it’s “all in my head.” FYI: It is in my head because that’s where my brain is.

Even though it is infuriating at times, it is OK for somebody to not understand mental illness. Not everyone has experienced a mental health problem and therefore not everyone can be empathetic. But, just because they can’t empathize, doesn’t mean you can’t educate them. Tell them how they can support you, and if they care, they’ll listen and learn.

And just remember — there are plenty of people you can talk to that will understand (like me). Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 8, 2016
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