Why People Think Mental Illness Is All in Your Head

September 7, 2012 Natasha Tracy

Some people think mental illness is all in your head in spite of medical evidence to the contrary. Why do people have this false thought? Breaking Bipolar blog.

We’ve all heard it – the condescending notion that bipolar disorder, depression or another mental illness is “all in our heads.” This is the notion that we are not ill and that we simply think we are ill. If we stopped believing we had a mental illness, we would stop having one. Naturally, this is hogwash. But science and medicine can’t seem to convince people out of this illogical notion (Denial Keeps Those with a Mental Illness From Getting Better). I think that’s because people have their own psychological reasons for wanting to believe that mental illness is “all in our heads.” Mostly, it’s fear.

Why People Believe Mental Illness is “All in Your Head”

1. Mental illness is scary.

Mental illness is a very scary proposition. You don’t control your brain – the very thing that controls every action you commit and every thought you have. No one wants to think that such a thing exists – they are simply too scared.

2. Mental illness can happen to anyone.

The fact of the matter is that mental illness does not discriminate and people of any age, culture and socioeconomic status have mental illnesses. This fact is enough to scare people into believing mental illness doesn’t exist because they can’t accept the fact that it could happen to them or someone they love.

3. Most people don’t understand psychology or psychiatry.

Let’s face it, the brain is a complicated place and few people walking around understand it. This is understandable as even after studying it I find it confounding. But the ignorance held by most people makes it more comprehensible to them to believe in something simple like a problem being “all in your head” rather than investigating the complexities of neurobiology (Why It's Ignorant to Write Off Psychiatry).

4. There are no cures for mental illness and treatments are, well, kind of archaic.

For some reason, people are more inclined to believe in something you can cure – probably because it’s less scary. And it’s also less scary to believe in things with extremely effective treatment. No one thinks diabetes is in your head because we know what causes it and how to fix it.

5. Mental illness can make you deny you are mentally ill.

And, of course, there’s anosognosia, which is the clinical state in which a person is mentally ill but the mental illness convinces them they are not. Mental illness is the only disease that can make you deny its own existence. Certainly, the idea that the brain can deny its own illness is a frightening thought.

Fear Makes People Say it’s “All in Your Head”

I could go on, but in short, other people are scared of mental illness and saying “it’s all in your head” is their way of assuaging their own fear. It’s sad that other people try to make themselves feel better by dismissing the pain and suffering of others, but it’s human; it’s what we do. It’s like saying, “well, of course, he got AIDS, he’s gay,” when, of course, over a quarter of new HIV cases are in heterosexuals each year. But by a heterosexual denying that fact, they can write off the terrifying problem as something they will never have to deal with.

So we, the people with the illnesses, are faced with the fear of others and the lack of compassion and logic that it breeds. The only consolation, maybe, is this: we know that we have faced the big, scary fear and survived. We know that we are strong. We know that we can stand up to that which scares us. We know that we have compassion and understanding for others.

Of course, that consolation is “all in our heads.”

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

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, September 7). Why People Think Mental Illness Is All in Your Head, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 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.

June, 9 2022 at 12:22 pm

Commenting on the diabetes..... I took some kind of offense, because not all tyoes can be "fixed". Thanks for the wishful thinking...

June, 21 2018 at 9:56 am

As being a person who truly believes that depression is not a serious disorder of the mind, but more of a mindset people live with, BEFORE YOU AUTOMATICALLY WRITE ME OFF AS AN IGNORANT OUTSIDER, maybe hear me out? After reading this article in its entirety I feel even more strongly in this opinion. I see no facts throughout, just a handful of biased claims from someone who feels offended by others that do not understand her pain.
1. Ask yourself why you feel so insulted that people do not believe in your disorder?
2. Why does it even matter to you what other people believe?
3. Why do you let yourself think these depressing thoughts instead of happy ones?
4. Why can't you seem to ever overcome this "disorder"?
In my own opinion, to which every human is entitled to, looking at this dilemma from the outside, It seems to me that it is common throughout this community of depression that you people (and by you people I mean people claiming to have depression, not meant in any derogatory way) need each other to make it through life. You all need someone to tell you you're not alone and that other people are struggling too. It seems as if you need people to understand your suffering so you can feel better. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe not, but I notice whenever someone misunderstands your individual special disorder it is infuriating to you people. Even something as small as calling is being depressed vs clinical depression. Who cares what its called? Why does that matter? It is amazing to me honestly of how much complaining and felling sorry for yourself can be found on threads about depression. I am not a doctor nor do I know near as much as a neurologist or anything along those lines so I am not going to sit here and throw numbers and claims about chemicals in the brain, because honestly I know little about it. Which brings me to my next point, neither do you. As soon as I see the quote, "Its chemical imbalance in the brain!!" I immediately know this person actually doesn't have a clue what they are talking about they are just repeating bullsh*t articles they read on the internet (a place which we al know is full of false information. a.k.a. this article above). I just hope one day maybe you people will open your eyes and take control of your own life instead of sitting around throwing the word ignorant at anyone but yourself.

January, 12 2021 at 10:21 pm

There are still people who actually think that mental illnesses are not real. They think that mental = mind = thoughts. Truth is mental illnesses are because of PHYSICAL areas of the PHYSICAL brain being affected. They think "It's just in your head!" That is in your mind/thoughts. The truth is the illness(es) are in our PHYSICAL brains. That is our PHYSICAL brains are sick. For some of us it is in the amgydala. For others it is in the basal ganglia. For others it is in the prefrontal cortex. For others it is in some other area of the brain. Some have it in more than one area. Where ever one illness or more than one illness may be they are the result of the literal PHYSICAL brain being sick.
Arrogantly though some people think they are experts on something they do not have and have no clue what they are talking about. It's like someone saying to a heart surgeon, "I can fix that person's heart!" The Dr. asks them about schooling and what they know about the heart. The person perks up and says, "Well, when I was 6 I received a heart valentine. That part is known as the Squishy Part. So I'm an expert as you can see." Um. No. You are not. It is like those who do not have a mental illness acting like they know what they are all about and how they affect people. It's arrogant beyond words.
People who think mental illnesses (more physical brain illnesses) are fake can deny all they want but it doesn't change reality. It doesn't change reality it could happen to you. Mental illness can happen to ANYONE. It does not discriminate. Some people want to stick their heads in the sand and tell themselves, "It's all fake! It's all in their heads!" Why? Fear. So they are willing to blame innocent sick humans for selfish reasons.
Some people think that people can control their brains. Now how stupid is that? Extremely. Would any of you who claim mental illnesses are fake get angry at a loved one who has cancer? Would you say, "That heartless self centered person! That person could stop having cancer at any time! They are just doing it on purpose!" Of course not, because people know that it is not the person's fault. They aren't deliberately making their cells multiply uncontrollably. You wouldn't glare at someone with cancer and think they can just will it away. So why do you with someone with the PHYSICAL brain being ill? Hmm?
Now imagine if someone died of a heart attack, would any of you say, "That *#%$! He just up and decided to have a heart attack! Selfish bastard! If he just tried harder, he could have made his heart keep beating! Flamin prick!" Of course not, because no one can control their heart. No one has control over that stuff. So then how come some think that people can control the brain and whether that gets sick or ill or not? We can't control the other organs. Yet people think that the brain as complex as it is CAN be controlled? Now where is the logic in that?
However, for some odd reason people think this, "Well, ok so you don't have control over your cells, your heart, or any other physical organ in your body. All those organs can get sick. However, the brain you have 100% control over and it can never get sick." Let's all stop for a second to realize how completely stupid that is. Never mind there is rabies and menigitis, etc. but the PHYSICAL brain just CAN'T get sick. Yeh just keep telling yourselves that. Keep deluding yourselves. Whatever helps you sleep at night.
Herein is the main problem. The wording. If people realized that it is not a mind or thought problem but the actual PHYSICAL brain affected they MIGHT be more compassionate. However, as I said, people don't think that way cause of the wording of MENTAL. If it was changed to show that it is actually the PHYISCAL brain affected (whether one area or another) people might get it. Might.
Consider this. Someone is blind. He is not blind just because of his eyes but because an area of his brain is affected. Do people say, "Just start seeing!" No, because a PHYSICAL part of the PHYSICAL brain is messed up. Same thing with a mental illness. No one would roll their eyes at someone who couldn't see because part of their PHYSICAL brain is affected. Well, the same with mental illnesses a part or parts of the PHYSICAL brain are affected. So how come it is ok for certain things but not for others? What's up with the double standards?
"That person is blind. They have a physical brain problem. It is not their fault. They can't help it. They can't just start seeing any time they want."
"That person has a mental illness. They have a physical brain problem. It is all their fault. They could stop at any time they want to." Let's stop and think of what the problem with this is. For some they will never see it.
For question 1. Hmm. Let's put it this way. Imagine you have a back problem and cannot lift anything over 1 lb. Someone needs help moving stuff. They see you and assume you are capable of it because you look just fine to them.
Them: Hey! Come help me lift this!
You go over to see. It is a box weighing 110 lbs.
You: I'd love to help, but I have a back problem. I can't lift that.
Them: Bull! You can too! Don't give me that crap!
You: No, I do. I can't lift anything over just 1 lb.
Them: You look fine to me! Now stop the bs!
You: I may look fine but I am not. My back can't handle it. I'm telling the truth.
Them: You just THINK that. You are CHOOSING it. You could make it stop at any time. Don't give me that.
You: So you actually think that I'm pretending and I can just will my back better?
Them: Yes!
Would that be fair? So it is with physical brain illnesses.
2. Why does it matter? Because INNOCENT people are being blamed for things that are not their fault. Their suffering is being blown off. Instead of compassion and "I'm here for you". They get eye rolls and "Omg! Fakers!" Imagine if a deaf person needed a hearing aid and someone said, "Oh! If you would just start hearing! You are choosing to be deaf!" Imagine a person who needs a pace maker hearing, "He does NOT need that! Bull! He could make his heart beat at the right pace!"
3. No one who has depression or for that matter any mental illness (more accurately PHYSICAL brain illness) CHOOSES to think depressing thoughts. It is NOT a choice. Realize the person is a hostage of their screwed up ill PHYSICAL brain. It is NOT the person doing it but their ill PHYSICAL brain doing it TO them.
4. Because it is NOT about merely THINKING. An area or areas of the PHYSICAL brain are being affected. If someone has diabetes, we don't demand they just "stop the bs! Make your pancreas work!" and expect it to just work that way. If someone has a broken foot, we don't say, "Make it heal right here and right now!" and expect that it to just work that way. So then why do people expect that of the PHYSICAL brain?

November, 26 2014 at 2:54 pm

There is so much to like about this article. Thanks. Two points I offer. Firstly, current research in the field is showing that it's not all in our heads, particularly in the case of depression. Current studies being doing in Melbourne, Australia are showing inflammation in the digestive tract contributes to changes in the head brain's chemistry. And the second is less offer and more a questions as I am deep in contemplation about it my self and have to deal with a couple of mental illness deniers tonight. Given all the reasons you provided for their stand point what are people's recommended ways of dealing with these people? Can find much of that online. I'd love to hear all you thoughts - especially those that go beyond just ignoring them. Which I acknowledge is sometimes useful but not practical in my case.

October, 24 2014 at 6:01 am

People don't understand when you go either up or down your mind is tortured by your own thoughts and you can't get away from yourself. That can be scary.
Its hard to work or integrate into the public when you can't really talk about how you are feeling.

Brian Bentham
July, 6 2014 at 7:16 pm

But getting back to your comment "i dont agree with the article."
The only true thing you alluded to is that if it was a bone sticking out of the arm or a disease like cancer or heart trouble those are things you can see or understand. You might not see depression in the same way but if you understood the symptoms and what to look for it wouldn't be such an invisible thing anymore. It's something I wouldn't wish on my own worst enemy.
I can assure you as 63 year old that has suffered with clinical depression pretty well my whole life and tried to take my own life at least a half dozen times, then you read that people that take their own lives or attempt to are nothing more than cowards. :(
I have also gone through ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy) or more commonly known as "Shock Treatments" on more than one occasion, that "It's all in your head" is something some of my own family has said in the past. My oldest son equates getting up in the morning and feeling blue as all that depression is, that's feeling depressed not true depression I've tried to explain to him. He feels all I need to do is get a job, I'll feel better and everything will be fine, even tho my first suicide attempt I was in emergency, charcoal being forced down my throat and having multiple grand map seizure and he was there to see everything so there should be no doubt in his mind that there's something horribly wrong with Dad, but it's still get a job.....
My ex just thinks it's just an excuse and there's nothing wrong with me. My youngest son and my daughter readily admit they believe they suffer from depression and some of the signs are there, but their mother says "oh there's nothing wrong with them" I have a grandson who is high functioning autistic with ADHD as well as other issues and my ex use to say he's just a bad kid because of the way he acted sometimes.
So I can assure you people do think those things and worse sometimes and if you suffered yourself you'd understand.

Brian Bentham
July, 6 2014 at 6:30 pm

That's not true, Fibromyalgia is a physical illness, nothing at all like mental illness.
Fibromyalgia is the most common musculoskeletal condition after osteoarthritis. Still, it is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood. Its characteristics include widespread muscle and joint pain and fatigue, as well as other symptoms. Fibromyalgia can lead to depression and social isolation.
What Is Fibromyalgia Syndrome?
A syndrome is a set of symptoms. When they exist together, they imply the presence of a specific disease or a greater chance of developing the disease. With fibromyalgia syndrome, the following symptoms commonly occur together:
Anxiety or depression
Decreased pain threshold or tender points
Incapacitating fatigue
Widespread pain
What Are Fibromyalgia Symptoms?
Fibromyalgia causes you to ache all over. You may have symptoms of crippling fatigue -- even on arising. Specific tender points on the body may be painful to touch. You may experience swelling, disturbances in deep-level or restful sleep, and mood disturbances or depression.
Your muscles may feel like they have been overworked or pulled. They'll feel that way even without exercise or another cause. Sometimes, your muscles twitch, burn, or have deep stabbing pain.
Some patients with fibromyalgia have pain and achiness around the joints in the neck, shoulder, back, and hips. This makes it difficult for them to sleep or exercise.

debbie catalina
July, 4 2014 at 3:38 pm

i dont agree with the article. It seems pretty apparent to me that mental illnes is in the class of illnesses that can not be objectively measured, like fibromyalga,which is said to be "all in your head", and other similar conditions... we can take and exray or do a blod draw and prove it.

June, 27 2014 at 5:44 am

here is another statement I really dislike.... "You ARE Bipolar!?!" ( you know the one, usually said with wide surprised eyes) My problem is with the ARE....I one goes around saying "You ARE cancer" or the like.....It just think it sends the message that we are nobody beyond our diagnosis

April, 8 2013 at 5:47 am

I am here to tell you it is not all in your head! It's a chemical imbalance in the brain. The general public is stupid to the fact that all bipolar people are not the same the media highlights those who "act out" but what does the media ever say about those of us who are properly medicated? Right, nothing! It's all in your head! That's the kind of ignorance I have no patience for. I have suffered for numerous years until I was put on my current cocktail. I am thankful for this forum as it has excellent topics and is an outlet for those of us with bipolar thanks Natasha!

January, 5 2013 at 11:53 pm

Thankyou for your article. I need to remember its not just all in my head. After being told it so much by other people its easy to think they must be right. Thus when I have a mood swing I add pressure to myself, by telling myself I am being stupid and to get a grip. Thats unless I am delusional or having hallucinations then of course that becomes the real world. However after the mood swing, when I recall the situation, I feel so embaressed and ashamed of what I have done. Thus your article is encougaging, thankyou.

December, 6 2012 at 9:08 am

One day, months into a growing friendship with a new neighbor, I told him I was bipolar. He grinned and said, "Man, everybody's bipolar!" I couldn't help but be a little miffed by his flippancy to my confession, not to mention his lack of understanding of bipolar. I assured him everybody was most certainly not bipolar. I was probably telling him too soon, but he was a writer, and we talked all the time. Of all the reactions I expected, I didn't expect such ignorance from someone who could be so insightful. Anyway, I think I set him straight :) Good post!

Natasha Tracy
September, 17 2012 at 9:01 am

Hi Kathy,
Nitpicking is OK. I changed it :)
- Natasha

September, 15 2012 at 11:45 am

This is such a great article. It brings things together so nicely, and makes it easier to understand why others don't understand.
Forgive me for nitpicking, but in number 3, the word "comprehensive" should be "comprehensible:"
"But the ignorance held by most people makes it more comprehensive to them to believe in something simple.."
I'm only pointing it out because it tripped me up in reading the sentence, and I lost the train of your thought.

September, 14 2012 at 6:44 pm

awesum site, so true though.

September, 8 2012 at 3:31 am

Been thinking that terminology is an issue. There's many common meanings for 'depressed', that are not the same as clinical depression.

September, 7 2012 at 11:27 pm

Best. Post. Ever.

September, 7 2012 at 9:38 am

Great usual! :)

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