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Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand Us?

Can a person without mental illness understand what it's like to live with one? The challenges of mental illness make it difficult to explain and to understand.

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?

Must You Live with It to Understand 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.

What Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand, If Anything?

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.

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.

14 thoughts on “Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand Us?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. darkest_soul,
    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.

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