Denial Keeps Those with a Mental Illness From Getting Better

July 14, 2011 Natasha Tracy

Many people commented on the article I wrote about what a loved one can say to someone who has attempted suicide. One thing is clear from all the outreach - many people have attempted suicide and many people have survived. No one in this situation is alone.

But after a suicide attempt people invariably feel alone. They feel like a freak. They feel hurt and afraid. And when other people deny their suicide attempt, deny their pain, deny their mental illness, this makes things worse, not better.

Denial is keeping your loved one from getting better.

Head-in-the-Sand Denial Doesn't Make Reality a Lie

Denying a problem doesn't make it go away any more than putting your hands over your eyes makes the world disappear. The world is there as soon as you move your hands. And you can't live with your hands over your eyes forever.

Denying your spouse hits you doesn't make the bruises go away. Denying your dad is an alcoholic doesn't stop him from passing out every night. Denying you had unprotected sex doesn't make you any less pregnant.

Why Would I Deny a Mental Illness If There Were One?

People are inclined to deny mental illness exists, even after a suicide attempt. Denial by loved ones hurts the person with the mental illness. Read more.And one of the more devastating things to deny is a person's illness. This could be any illness, but so often it's a mental illness.

"Oh, you know Uncle Jim, he's just odd (not schizophrenic)."

"Your sister Sally just gets upset sometimes (not depressed)."

And so on.

This denial may make it easier for the loved one, but saying the false words makes it infinitely harder for the person who is actually sick.

Why Does Mental Illness Denial Matter?

Isn't it easier to not talk about it?


Well, yes. You can not talk about the elephant in the room but then you'll never get rid of the elephant in the room.

The problem with denying illness, which includes illness symptoms like a suicide attempt, is illness needs treatment. And you can't get treatment for something that doesn't exist. If my arm isn't broken, it doesn't need a cast.

And when those around the mentally ill person say the illness doesn't exist, it makes it that much harder for the person with the illness to come to terms with their illness, their symptoms and getting treatment. It hard enough to admit to yourself you're sick, when everyone around you is saying you're not, it nears impossible.

Living in denial means doing nothing about the illness. If doing nothing worked, the person wouldn't be in pain. If doing nothing worked, people wouldn't attempt suicide.

If denying mental illness worked, there would be no more mental illness.

Your Denial is Hurting the Ones You Love

Your denial is making it harder on the person who is sick. Your lies, told to selfishly maintain your own comfort, are making it more painful for the person you claim to care about. You're hindering their getting treatment. You're lessening the chances of their getting better.

It doesn't matter if the person needs a psychiatrist, a therapist, a hospital or a hug; with everyone around them denying their needs, they can't get any of it.

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

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2011, July 14). Denial Keeps Those with a Mental Illness From Getting Better, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 22 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

Patient Zero
December, 11 2019 at 4:16 pm

By their own admission psychiatrists cannot predict dangerousness and often release
violent patients from facilities, claiming that they are not a threat to others, or grant
them privileges that lessen security procedures in place for them.   
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s own Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders, the manual is “not sufficient to establish the existence for
legal purposes of a ‘mental disorder,’ ‘mental disability,’ ‘mental disease,’ or ‘mental
defect,’” in relation to competency, criminal responsibility or disability.

December, 6 2015 at 8:42 am

I see this with my husband's family. His brother has been hospitalized 3 times. He's bipolar and but but split personality. Unfortunately, the whole family denies this. He lost his marriage to hitting his wife. Also was convicted of drinking and driving. My husband paid over 50,000G's with lawyer fees etc. He also supported him financially for 11 years. This 52 year old has lived with his parents the last 11 years since his marriage failed. He worked at my husbands office but was fired a few times and of course my husband rehired him.
None of this has helped him. He quit over 7 months ago. All the other employees are happy that he is gone. I blame my hubby for just enabling for the last 11 years. He doesn't take meds and is lucky to live with his aging parents.
But the whole family won't talk about it
Tragic. I fear one day-since he has violent tendencies that he will kill my husband because deep down he hates my hubby. The other dumb sisters avoid the whole issue. But they also have their issues. What makes this sad is my mother in laws brother is the one who had the illness. Then she has a son and denies the illness but it's from her family. It such a mess

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Patient Zero
December, 11 2019 at 4:10 pm

Were they able to confirm bi-polar with any kind of diagnostic tests?
If bi-polar is a disease such as cancer, then why is it undetectable or unidentifiable? We can see cancer cells... where is bi-polar.

Jill Leo
May, 3 2015 at 12:37 pm

Loud and proud, sister! Keep telling this world the good stuff. We need your voice!

October, 28 2014 at 6:26 am

i was abused growing up and had depression symptoms since I was 13. I attempted suicide in my early 20s and my parents told me i should have just talked to them. They made fun of me and ignored me as I had an anxiety attack triggered by their verbal abuse a few years prior. If they had apologised for the abuse, validated my feelings and made an attempt to diagnose and treat my obvious illness, maybe we would still be in contact.

October, 22 2014 at 4:28 am

It's extremely hurtful when you have a mental illness and you try to help people who are suffering or their children are suffering in your extended family and they deny it because of stigma. I have bipolar and my mother had schizophrenia and anxiety and depression in my family run rampant but people are so ashamed.
Although I am loved by my extended family I get comments such as why talk about mental illness on Facebook all the timesnd it makes me angry. My mothers side of the family seem to think just seeing any doctor ever is shameful.
Behind all stigma is denial, fear and ignorance.

Tan Mary
October, 21 2014 at 9:59 pm

People can see those who are physically handicapped and empathise or sympathise their disability. But people cannot see that a person suffering from depression and anxiety disorder. Denial or ignorance does not help, Denial makes the mentally disabled person feel that no one understands and often even feel misunderstood. Especially if the person in denial is your loved ones!

Lori Gosselin Marcoux
October, 21 2014 at 7:21 pm

I totally agree I've witnessed that the unconditional love and support does help. the individual that suffers will feel less alone and will gain self-esteem and will thrive in the community, have better interpersonal skills etc. in my case I have family issues which make me feel alienated, alone, on supported. when I ask my family to walk for NAMi each late September, early October, family says, "oh what's that?" I explain and it obvious to me when my dad or sibling without any thought say, "no"!! ex. why does this ignorance continue it is extremely sad, these mental illnesses and symptoms are not contagious. I am very rarely invited to relatives houses for dinner, my sister triggers me and its damaging when she does it on several occasions, then I'm in the bathroom trying to compose myself.
with all that said, what helps is groups attending, trying to relate with no judgement listening to ppls recovery and how to learn from are weaknesses and heal through the confidentiality to bond share talk the group is called Recovery Talks. I have grown so much and us mindfulness, coping skills and is also geared around the 8 Fundamental of Wellness! Its a great group and is a remarkable inspiring to be apart of wellness, my favorite is when someone who usually only listens for a few weeks all of a sudden smiles softly and talking it is such a sudden thing to see him/her coming out of their shell! I now have a two yr. goal, to become a peer support speciality. I hope my mini novel helps someone.

July, 7 2014 at 11:49 am

I think its important to realize that family members may also have a mental illness. When Depression or other mental illnesses are being treated and its working it is not uncommon for a person to feel "all better" they might miss one dose of meds. They wont feel that different one day. One day becomes two and then they slide back to where they were.
I dont think its much different from an alcoholic taking that one drink.
No one wants wants to take medication just to be "Normal." The stigma concerning mental health makes it hard to accept.
Sometimes family members with mental illnesses (diagnosed or not) Really believe their loved one is better. They see them go back to the person they may remember while in treatment and/or on medication.They want their loved one to be well bad enough they block out the bad to focus on the good.
Every case and each pwrson is different. The one thing I think most will agree with is education is the key. That and dont judge others. Anyone dealing with illnesses of any kind could use support. I think mental health should be one of the ones at the top of the list. :)

July, 5 2013 at 7:03 am

I disagree when you mentioned that suicide attempts are so obvious that people really can't be in denial about it. Many people have commented in other posts that they are often accused by others of "seeking attention" when admitting that they wanted to kill themselves. I also know of one person who was actually in the act of hanging himself, and people still accused him of "doing it for attention". It is truly difficult to fanthom the loss of the self-preservation instinct, so people tend to dismiss it. Unfortunately, depression is just too real of a reality that this instinct can and does cease to exist, that it is possible for your mind to fail you in this way. Denial is the easy way of dealing with this.

July, 5 2013 at 12:05 am

I know this is an old post, but I still wanted to comment and say that I find it incredibly touching. I've been told that I'm in pain because I'm lazy, that I just need to do something with my life and go out more, that I should stop pretending I'm ill, because it couldn't possibly happen to me.
I think more people need to read this and realize that what they're doing is wrong.

March, 4 2013 at 11:44 am

Blair that is so true!

March, 4 2013 at 2:29 am

Mental illness is so screwed up. I am bipolar and we have our own version of anosognia. It's not as severe as schizophrenics anosognia, because we still know we are not ok, but we deny that anything is wrong when asked. This is trouble for us, because with us our symptoms manifest, in our up and down moods and so later we seemingly cheer up and by doing so further enable all people in denial around us to continue on in denial. Also, similar to anosognia is when we are manic and in the upswing and seem to be feeling and doing better.

October, 19 2012 at 2:31 pm

Mental illness carries a stigma. The irony for those with depression or anxiety based illnesses is that abusive environments tend to exacerbate their symptoms. Sometimes it is difficult separating the symptoms from the cause: those in abusive or exploitative relationships tend to manifest symptoms of depression and anxiety that lift when they are safe. Having suffered from major depression in the past I would not will that pain on anyone. Although mental illness can be genetic, there is a definite link between violence and mental illness. Domestic violence costs billions in sick days, lost productivity and potential and treatment. Perhaps that person missing in action at work is home due to abusive clients or a toxic boss or work colleague? Get real. Toxic environments make people sick. Instead of labeling a person crazy, maybe validate their reason for preferring to stay away. No-one could pay me to work again in some of the state schools where I once taught. The instant I resigned from a school where students verbally and physically attacked the teachers, and the principal sided with students who ran to her office and reported on their "mean" "hard" teachers who expected them to work in class, my depressed mood lifted. I admire anyone with the fortitude to survive in some environments without suffering any symptoms. Sorry to say, I lack the thick skin to cope with subtle and overt abuse. Maybe I grew up and realised that no-one should have to suffer due to an unsafe workplace.

Kim Trebonik
September, 5 2012 at 8:35 am

I agree with Terry completely. I just did not understand my son's pain. From my perspective he had a good life. Its hard to understand depression when you don't have it!! It truly is a medical condition, not a wrong mind set! Denial is part of people's problem with mental illness, but a lack of understanding is more accurate!!! I have never been that low, or experienced that type of emotional pain, I could not fathom suicide so I could not fathom my son doing such a thing!!!

Natasha Tracy
July, 27 2011 at 7:51 am

Hi Mom,
I'm sorry you're in that position. It's extremely difficult on this side of the crazy to see it sometimes. We don't want to believe we're sick. It's a pretty natural reaction.
There is only so much you can do if the person isn't a danger to themselves or others. You might be able to get through to him, you might not. Maybe later on you'll be able to approach the subject again. Even if he doesn't get it at this moment, it doesn't mean there isn't a possibility in the future.
I wrote an article on this:…
I hope that helps.
- Natasha

July, 26 2011 at 8:19 pm

What about the denial of the person with the illness, how do we deal with that. I am not in denial about his illness, he is, i am the one trying to get him help, but he has no insight, he cant see it.

Natasha Tracy
July, 19 2011 at 7:25 am

Hi Terry,
Well, with all due respect, I think a suicide attempt is so obvious that people in denial about it really are lying. Sure, many people don't know that they have a problem in many areas of their lives, but an actual attempt at death is too obvious to miss.
I agree, education can help this problem.
- Natasha

Terry Garahan
July, 18 2011 at 2:44 pm

Natasha, Many people operate on a very low level, just getting by. They and their loved ones minimize their actions, even suicide attempts. I think that lie is too strong a word. They don't want to accept, they'd rather ignore or they just can't comprehend the pain their loved one is going through. Most aren't lying, they just don't know, which is why education about mental health is so important. Denial is based on knowing you have a problem, many people don't know. Look at my posts on:

Natasha Tracy
July, 15 2011 at 8:15 am

Hi Winry,
"When I admitted I was depressed, I could finally take steps to move on."
Yes, that's the point exactly.
- Natasha

July, 15 2011 at 6:48 am

Denying an illness doesn't cure it.
You can't deny a physical illness- symptoms manifest.
You can't deny a mental illness- symptoms manifest here too.
however, in the minds of some, denial.. makes it easier to bear.
When I admitted I was depressed, I could finally take steps to move on.

July, 14 2011 at 7:06 pm

and/or there needs to be a 'that' in there... "denying THAT your dad IS an alcoholic ..." also please delete these comments. not meant to be seen by all, only you .

July, 14 2011 at 7:03 pm

'denying your dad isn't an alcoholic' shouldn't it be 'is' not 'isn't' ?

Natasha Tracy
July, 14 2011 at 4:39 pm

That's a fair enough point, but what I'm talking about is the denial by the people around the individual with the illness and not the individual themselves.
- Natasha

Tedrry Garahan
July, 14 2011 at 2:48 pm

For some people, it is not denial but anosognosia, a symptom that at least half the people with schizophrenia have. It does not allow you to know you are ill. If you want to learn more look at my blog, Mental Health Resolution Thanks Terry Garahan

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