Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand Us?

I have been writing about mental illness for almost a decade now and part of the reason was to try and help people understand bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. And I have succeeded in some regards. I get emails from people quite frequently that tell me how much more they understand about the disease now that they have read my writings. I am tremendously gratified by this.

But, of course, I reach a tiny percentage of people and the issue of mental illness stigma still affects us all. And some people, no matter how hard we try to explain ourselves to them, never seem to understand mental illness.

Which begs the question: can a person without a mental illness ever really understand what we’re going through?

Living With a Mental Illness

Recently I was quoted as saying, “Having a constantly broken brain is akin to some form of torture,” and to me, that essentially sums up my experience with mental illness. Experiences vary, of course, but I would say I’m hardly alone in that view.

But it’s very difficult to explain the realities of that statement to others. There is no bamboo under my fingernails, no water is being forced down my throat and no one is beating me with a cane. And while I do have my share of body markings from this particular illness, this often doesn’t convince people of the harrowing nature of mental illness as much as it asserts the notion that I’m bat-crap crazy as people find it extremely difficult to put such scars into context.

Moreover, I’ve found that many, if not most, people with a mental illness have a really tough time expressing the depths or heights to which they reach. The average person might feel unable to express it due to discomfort or simply not being able to find the words. The difficulty simply cannot be overstated.

Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand?

While many people believe that, no, they never really can, I disagree. I think that if a person makes a concerted effort to go out and educate themselves about the illness and reads real stories from people with the illness, they can come to understand what a person with a mental illness goes through. Certainly, I have heard from enough partners of people with a mental illness to believe this is true. They often understand the suffering of the person on a very deep, personal and profound level.

So it is likely true that not everyone has the compassion and empathy to understand life with a mental illness, but I would say that many people do, if they choose to put in the effort to uncover it.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

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14 Responses to Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand Us?

  1. Collette says:

    When I spoke publicly about living with a mental illness, I had two exercises I would often do with the audience that seemed to help them understand.

    Someone without a mental illness will never fully be able to understand our experiences unless they actually are unfortunate to develop mental illness, just as I will never be able to understand the experience of a cancer patient or someone who is dying unless I fall into their shoes, but the ‘ah-hah’ looks on the faces and the tears of some told me that they were able to get at least a glimmer of understanding.

  2. harryf200 says:

    You said, “So it is likely true that not everyone has the compassion and empathy to understand life with a mental illness, but I would say that many people do…”

    Key in that sentence is one word: Empathy. Only those who have the capacity to be empathetic, only they have a cat in Hell’s chance of truly understanding, and some of them will probably have a mental health problem that they are not aware of! That is especially true, I suspect, of those who have Dysthymic Disorder: They frequently believe their constant state of depression is normal and how everyone feels!)

    What is more, people who experience mental illness are not all empathetic, either; some cannot imagine what it takes to handle, for example, a Bipolar depression. Sometimes, I think those people are the worst because they imagine they speak from experience when they say,”You just have to snap out of it, like I had to do when I was depressed after I lost my job/parent died/divorced..”

  3. Sarah says:

    Harryf200, I think our language is partly to blame for those people who say ‘snap out of it like I did’.

    The word ‘depression’ is used in a number of contexts.

    There is everyday use, such as “Dude, I failed my exam and now I’m really depressed, let’s get wasted”

    There is depression which is part of the grieving process, such as when one loses a loved one.

    And then there is clinical depression in its various forms.

    Each one is quite different, but we use the same word. No wonder there is a lack of understanding.

  4. BB says:


    Would you please describe the exercises you used in your speaking that caused people to “get” mental illness? That would be SO helpful to a lot of us!

  5. Drea says:

    Since I was diagnosed at 19 being bipolar, I have come across many different responses to my illness, I have struggled with this since the people that I love have not always believed I had the illness. So with more bouts of mania and depression I have come to complete acceptance of my illness and choose to treat it with meds, therapy and using the tools that I have learned to work for me such as going to church, reading, writing, eating healthy, staying active, keeping a regular sleep cycle, drinking plenty of water, controlling my thoughts and prayer. Almost 3 years has passed without having an episode of any sort. I have found the right med regiment for my case and and am so thankful for that. I try to stay away from thought patterns that lead to depression and manage my triggers to keep me from a manic episode. I have an amazing man in my life who is fully accepting of my illness and the way it has affected my life. He loves and supports my continued management of it. This I find to be an incredibly empowering relationship since he is willing to work with me and remind me to stay on my regiment. Not accusing me or holding my past against me in any way. Having been through some very intense phases in the last 9 years I’ve racked up some horror stories. To live with them has been a burden at best, but accepting and forgiving myself has been my path to coming to terms with things. I hope that one day my story will help someone else also.

  6. zed null says:

    Sometimes, for some of us… the constant need to explain; becomes so frustrating… that, we choose to only associate with others… that also are dealing with their own mental illnessess… as, the “easier road to travel”… Sadly, even within our own groups; there exists stigma and bias… “My mental illness, is different from yours; so you couldn’t possibly understand”… Or, “I don’t have an illness, so stop talking to me like I do”… “I just have a DIFFERENT WAY, of SEEING THINGS and DOING THINGS… that’s MY kind of NORMAL!” As an individual, that has a poly-diagnosis… to where different aspects kick in, without my ability to control them… I just have learned to accept, that what is TRUE for me… doesn’t have to be true… for anybody else… and, I DON’T always need to explain everything, to everybody, all the time!

  7. Hi Harrf200,

    Both of those are good examples of people who likely _woudn’t_ understand and I do agree with you that other’s who have experience a mental illness (or something they have perceived as a mental illness) can be the worst due to their perception of understanding. There is nothing more irritating than someone who thinks they understand an illness when clearly they understand nothing of the sort.

    - Natasha

  8. Hi Zed Null,

    You make a good point. While, I think, many of us feel the need to explain ourselves, we certainly don’t have to and shouldn’t feel the pressure to explain. However, I think it’s very human to want to feel that other people understand you and for people with a mental illness that generally involves a lot of explaining.

    It’s good if you’re able to fight that urge though, as you said, sometimes you’re never going to win that battle.

    - Natasha

  9. Daniel says:

    A better question might be how much can a person understand menal illness when s/he is not suffering from it directly? For that matter, any kind of a illness (e.g. Cancer, Alzheimer’s…). So is it 20%, 50%, 90%, …

    This is also similar to family members who also suffer from the effect of the illness. The suffering for family members and the suffering of the person who has the illness is different, with different issues, nevertheless, it’s suffering.

    Good question.

  10. darkest_soul says:

    You can’t make ANYONE understand no matter how hard you try…especially if they don’t want to..such as in my husbands’ case. Every time i try to tell him how i am feeling, or how most of the times he is the cause of things…he just won’t listen. i’ve sent him articles, he goes to therapy with me…but the blame always lies with me. Lately it’s been “I’m tired of seeing you walk around here all don’t see me walking around like that…you’re depressing ME…” oh what a great source of support from the man who says he loves me more than anything in this world.

  11. kaitlin panda says:

    I just wanted to say I understand where you’re going through and you have my empathy. A lack of understanding does not mean a lack of love. Many people are so upset seeing their loved ones so ill that their way of handling it is to pretend it isn’t real. I hope that you’re able to rely on a strong support system of family and friends until he comes around.

  12. Rick says:

    I was diagnosed 9 years with complex post traumatic stress, depression and anxiety. I have to say no matter what anyone says there is no way that someone truly understands any mental illness unless they, themselves have had some form of mental illness.

  13. Stacey says:

    I disagree. No one can ever truly understand what someone else is going through. They might feel strong sympothy and empathy but they could never understand what you are feeling in your own brain. If they have a mental illness, they can absolutely have an understanding. Still not fully since everyone is different

  14. Kathy says:

    Maybe I’m too sensitive. An in law tells me every time we talk how some person in the family is struggling (non mental health issue), and see, everyone has problems. I used to tell this woman my problems, so I’m not sure if she’s being sympathetic or saying shut up, you don’t have anything to complain about.

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