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Why Is It So Hard to Explain Mental Illness?

Explaining mental illness is a hard task. It's hard for others to understand and it's hard for us to say. Language itself is partly to blame. Breaking Bipolar blog.

I’ve been writing about bipolar disorder and mental illness for nine years. Nine long years of pain and depression and episodes and hyperreality and desperation and description and explanation and exploration. And people still don’t get it. Even if you look at the past year – over 200 articles, there still seems to be nothing but a chasm between the mentally ill and so many of the mentally well.

And I think this is because language is insufficient to express emotional pain and turmoil. We have good words for describing physical pain: radiating, hot, throbbing, sharp, achy and so on. But when it comes to emotional pain we’re “sad.” The same word applies when you drop your ice cream cone on the ground as when you’re so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. It’s not surprising that people don’t get what we’re talking about.

Pain is a Matter of Degree

But emotional pain, like physical pain, is a matter of degree. Everyone experiences sadness – which is the problem. An average person who experiences sadness thinks they know what it is. And they do. They know sadness of a level 2. Or 4. Or maybe even 5 when a loved one dies. But they don’t know the sadness that is so big that it destroys your world.

Similarly, people can get upset and get anxious before a test or a job interview and think they know anxiety. But that isn’t the grating, jagged, writhing beast that eats you from the inside of your flesh.

People seem to think they understand severity – thinking that their pain must be the worst pain, and if they got over it then so should everyone else. No one would compare a twisted ankle to a shattered femur and expect the shattered one to “walk it off” but with emotion, that’s exactly what we do.

The Language of Emotion

Essentially, language is the problem. No one, euphemistically, says, “Gosh, I feel so cancer-ridden today,” but they will say, “I’m so depressed the [insert sports team] lost last night.” People take even the word “cancer” very seriously, as they should, but the same isn’t true for words like “depressed.”

And this isn’t anyone’s fault, exactly, it’s just language and the way we use it. Anxiety can be normal or it can be pathological. Sadness can be normal or it can be pathological. Sex drive can be normal or it can be pathological.

Unfortunately, people misunderstand all those normal emotions for the ones that a person who’s sick experiences because they’re called the same thing. And all the explaining in the world seems to run up against a brick wall in some people.

I guess all I can say is that understanding comes when the reality of what a pathological emotion does is faced. Understanding comes when you see someone not be able to get out of bed. Realization arrives when you know someone who is too anxious to leave his or her house.

And talking about these real experiences and real consequences of illness can contribute to greater understanding for all. Because the words themselves can’t set us free but using them to tell the honest and open truth just might.

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

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

26 thoughts on “Why Is It So Hard to Explain Mental Illness?”

  1. I find it hard to describe the kind of pain I feel. I only can say with certainty that the “k
    Living” do not have a clue. For this I find I am all alone and will inevitably kill myself. I am only waiting for my mother to pass. I know this sounds sick, but this is what I’m driven to. There are no words to describe the pain. I failed at life. Jr

    1. Hi Jack,

      I’m sorry you are feeling this pain right now. I know how bad pain can be. I know how bad it can get. And I know how hard it can be to describe it to someone else.

      I also know, however, that things do get better. With help from others, pain can pass.

      Please see our suicide section for a lot of information on what you may be feeling: http://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/suicide/suicide-suicidal-thoughts-and-behaviors-toc/

      And please reach out and get help. You are not alone. People want to help you, but you have to reach out in order for them to do that.

      – Natasha Tracy

  2. All day today the tears have been flowing and I just can’t seem to stop. I self harmed to release some of the pressure that has been building up inside. I’m not suicidal exactly I just needed some sort of distraction or release to feel ‘better’. I know that sounds crazy but I actually do feel better. I am tired though from all this crying and all I wanna do now is sleep.

    Tomorrow I’ll get up again and put on my happy face to go to work so I can pay my bills, well at least most of them…

  3. It was very interesting to read both the original blog post and the comments. I have had a mild depression for a few years and have finally decided to go to both CBT and a psychiatrist on my doctors ordination. Little by little have I puzzled together my life during recent years, but still the depression remains with the suicidal thoughts. No matter how fun or great my day may had been, I still could not feel anything more than a slight lamina of emotion. So I came to fully comprehend that something is out of tune in my body.

    It is so frustrating because I used to have a great range and depth of feelings. Now I have went from painful sorrow to emotional fatigue and numbness. I remember how I had absolutely no idea what depression was. I used to think that if it ever happened to me I would just muster will power, think about good things and be healthy again. As being the positive man I am. How wrong was I!

    All of a sudden my favourite music sucked and was bland. My earlier happy memories no longer carried any emotional impact on me besides perhaps feelings of sorrow or bitterness. My wish to travel was completely numbed by complete lack of feelings of curiosity. Food barely tastes anything or has any impact emotionally, hence my reluctance to cook more advanced dishes. I used to be able to study and remember a lot, but now I can barely remember or appreciate what I read ten seconds ago.

    I nowadays feel like I’m in a row boat and I see all of these other people sailing along with great speed and joy. People with no experience of depression should start with two things:
    1. Realize that you most likely don’t have the slightest idea of what impact depression has, even if you feel sad sometimes. Start from there and read up on it with a clear mind.
    2. Respect the person suffering and try to muster an understanding that a depressed person is going through something enormous. I have great respect for everyone who has a mental illness, but particularly for a person who struggles with severe or chronic depression.

    Right now I have started to feel a glimmer of hope after many hard years of fighting and trying to improve my life. Perhaps I will start to feel better the coming months, or maybe in a few years. I don’t know. But for the first time in a very long time I have began to respect myself and realize what kind of disease depression is, and why professional help is so important.

    Good luck to you all! Remember that even if people around you don’t comprehend what you are going through, there is at least one dude, with a poor sense of humour and horrible cooking skills, who understands pretty good and feels great respect.

  4. I wrote a metaphorical story that helped me explain a little of what I was going through in a visual way. It helped my parents get a little more understanding of me. But the truth is words can never fully describe the pain and emotions of mental illness

  5. Having bipolar myself, is so frustrating, the depression part is perhaps a little easier to relate to but the manic part has been most hard for me to get others to understand . Plus for me just to deal with, myself. I’m so ex tactically happy that I literally repelled people . I love people and all ways craved being close to people , drawing me closer to them . Instead I scarred people, really! They literally was afraid of me . I overwhelmed them with my exuberance! How I hated that! Then I would have self hate, and go through extreme depression , over and over again! Still like that,but not as bad, medicine helps .But life is so hard. People just don’t understand!!!

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