Can You Understand Mental Illness If You Don't Live With It?

February 18, 2013 Natalie Jeanne Champagne

People who live with mental illness often feel like other people do not understand them. Can you understand mental illness if you don't live with it?

This post was derived from a couple of different sources. One, a few insightful comments readers made on why living with a mental illness makes us exhausted. This post focused on a few of the reasons why mental illness can cause exhaustion in those who live with, and experience it, on a daily basis. These readers stressed that they struggled with exhaustion and pain living with, and supporting, those who struggle with mental health.

Two, comments from people living with mental illness that could relate to my post, could relate to the feelings surrounding mental illness and the coinciding exhaustion (Can People Without a Mental Illness Understand Us?). I started thinking and decided that this topic should be explored--both sides of it.

No, You Can't Understand Mental Illness If You Don't Live With It

This is how I feel and I cannot tell you that I apologize for feeling this way. When I can't get the hell out of bed and my mother tells me she understands, bright eyed and happy to be alive, I am certain she does not understand. I am certain she has no idea what mental illness feels like. This is why many people with mental illness isolate when they are struggling. They feel alone.

Yes, one might argue, we all feel down from time to time, but people who struggle with serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder often experience mania, psychosis and mixed states (What Is Bipolar Psychosis?). Among other things. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

So my mother can try to give me a hug, though my body will likely stiffen when she does, and tell me I'll feel better if I have a hot bath and I can love her for her support but I cannot, not for a minute, believe she understands. And it's not for lack of trying. And it's not because I do not care about her feelings, it is because when I am sick I am bloody well sick, and all I really want to do is turn of all the lights and hide. Sometimes I, we, do just that. Sometimes, we feel like aliens. Defined by our illness and unable to explain it to people, to understand it ourselves, and just cheer up.

Now, let's flip to the other side.

Yes, You Can Understand Mental Illness if You Don’t Live With It

What about the other side of a complicated discussion? What about the parents, the friends, who watch those with mental illness spiral out of control? What about the affect this has on their lives? It's not all about those of us who live with mental illness--Sometimes we forget this. The problem is as simple as it is complicated: I cannot speak for these people just as they cannot speak for me. For us. But we can try.

One reader pointed out that, well, I was pretty much focusing on the topic from my experience and directed toward those who live with mental illness. She provided some examples of how difficult it was raising a child with mental illness. I can understand on some level: being diagnosed at age twelve. My illness disrupted the entire family; it made us all sick.

When I was in an episode of mania, depression or psychosis, the entire family suffered. When I began abusing drugs the entire family suffered. I can tell you that I understand a little bit but my parents. . . will live with these memories forever. It hurts me to know this, just as it hurts them to know I will live with bipolar disorder for the rest of my life.

Of course I wish they could understand me more, my illness, and they too wish I could understand how my bipolar disorder affects the family. Mental illness is a painful disease and it's painful for all involved.

What's The Bottom Line?

The bottom line is that there is no bottom line. There is perspective, open dialogue, and working to understand each other. If you try to put it in perspective and throw away the entire topic of mental health---Nobody really understands anybody. Yes, we can live and we can love, but we cannot understand the entirety of a person. That would be boring. That would be lacking in luster. Romantic relationships would fizzle out before the honeymoon period even got going.

I work very hard to understand my family, recognize their pain and not just my own, and they do the same. It's a compromise: I love and care for them and they do the same. We give each other space when needed.

I guess, now that this post has come to the close, that's the bottom line. It's my bottom line anyway. We each define our own, and for our own reasons, and all of them are important.

APA Reference
Jeanne, N. (2013, February 18). Can You Understand Mental Illness If You Don't Live With It?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 24 from

Author: Natalie Jeanne Champagne

December, 24 2018 at 6:48 pm

I have search far and wide in order to gain clarity on my partners mental health conditions. There is very little awareness in Australia and the battle against mental health is real. I would love to be able to chat with someone like yourself who has experienced the exact circumstances my partner faced. However not diagnosis’s with bipolar, it seems the more research I do, the more articles I study & now from what I’ve read above, it all adds up.

Dr Musli Ferati
February, 27 2013 at 9:22 am

Mental illness as disequilibrium of mind exhibits great challenge for both; mentally ill person and for their close relatives on the other side of enigma that include this troublesome issue. In the midst of these parts stand up the psychiatric care team, which one should to soften the misunderstanding about metal pathology as invisible and disastrous ditch of interpersonal relationship anywhere and at any time. Your personal observation are helpful and useful recommendations anyway, but the substantial and professional psychiatric treatment and management of mental indicates primary approaching to overcome the hardness difficulties of any mental illnesses. First of all, there is psychiatric medication that should be under close supervision of clinical psychiatrist for long term period of time. In the complete psychiatric treatment of patient with psychic disorders belongs up different psycho-social interventions managed by clinical psychologist and social workers as assistants of clinical psychiatrist. However, the co-operation of psychiatric patient and its family plays an important role on sophisticated treatment of respective mental disorder. This helpful intention could be accomplish by psycho-education working out with patient and its family, in order to understand the real nature of mental illness and to follow up closely the process of treatment and recovery to any psychiatric entity. Otherwise the treatment of mental illness would be tiresome and of temporary character with ruinous consequences for own one psychiatric patients and its life environment.

Jay Underwood
February, 20 2013 at 12:36 am

Yes, it is possible, but requires a great deal of effort for an individual. NAMI, (national association of mental Illness), offers classes for both the mentally ill, to better understand their own illness, and to share with others who suffer as they do. To not feel so alone in the world. As well as family members of the mentally ill. Even the mentally ill may take years in therapy to understand their own illness. It is often necessary for a sufferer of mental illness to,(especially those diagnosed late in life), understand how their own view of the world is different than those who do not suffer a mental illness. To see the world through their eyes, in order to rejoin the world without the fear and shame of knowing they are different, but not knowing why. Of feeling defective, broken, and in constant fear of bbeing discovered, loosing friends and loved ones who do not understand.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
February, 22 2013 at 6:46 am

Hi, Jay:
You are right NAMI is an excellent resource and have branches in many areas and/or support. I encourage people to visit the main page for more information @
I agree that when you live with a mental illness you need to understand that your view of the world, while not being a negative thing, may be different. Having said this, we all view the world differently.
Thanks for the comment,

Mark Koning
February, 19 2013 at 3:15 am

This is an interesting topic. I often feel that no one understands the things I still deal with from my brain injury long ago. But I also bottle things up sometimes and don't always talk about stuff, so saying that my sister doesn't understand (to a degree) may not be true; after all, she witnessed my time in the hospital and the therapies I've gone through. I also now get to see another perspective with regards to the injury my mom sustained in 2001; different but similar. While I feel I understand a lot more because of what I went through, I'm sure that she feels alone at times.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
February, 22 2013 at 6:47 am

Hey, Mark!
We tend to keep things to ourselves, isolate our feelings, when we struggle. And yes, your sister witnessing your pain caused her pain as well and, of course, commonalities exist. I always look forward to your comments!

February, 18 2013 at 9:00 am

I do believe it is true, you dont understand what its like if you don't live with the illness, yet unless you've cared for someone with an illness you don't know what that's like. We do the beat we can on both sides to understand. I have been on both sides and both sides are so different. Neither one is easy or fun to be on. And both are full of learning and obsticals.

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