Why People Don’t “Get” Mental Illness and How You Can Help
When someone breaks a leg, people “get” it. They understand it. They empathize with it. They’re compassionate about it. The same thing is true when people get cancer or undergo surgery for a heart condition or even get the flu. And yet when someone has a mental illness, people just don’t “get” it. And in spite of spending more than a decade educating about my mental illness, bipolar disorder, sometimes I feel like they never will. This tends to make people with mental illness feel alone.
People Identify with Non-Neurological Illness
People identify with illnesses that happen outside the brain because people have experience with illnesses that are non-neurological in nature. Many people have broken a bone or know someone going through cancer treatment or have had the extreme displeasure of having surgery. People “get” these things because they have lived experience with them.
The thing about serious mental illness is that people don’t have lived experience with it. It’s almost impossible for a neurologically-well person to understand the concept of something misfiring in the brain. They just don’t “get” it because to them, they are their brain and their brain is them. And what could possibly go wrong with “them?”
People Don’t Get Brain Illnesses Even Though the Brain is Just an Organ
But those of us with serious mental illnesses can tell you that your brain (and your bipolar thoughts) are not you. Your brain is just an organ. Your brain is just a fancy computer. And computers and organs break down and have problems just like hearts, lungs or pancreases. And I would suggest that due to the fact that your brain is much more complicated than one than simply secretes insulin or pumps blood, it has many more possibilities of something going wrong with it.
But this fact is lost on most people.
How Do We Help Others “Get” Mental Illness?
A really effective way of getting a person to “get” mental illness is to give them lived experience with it. And no, I don’t mean giving everyone a mental illness, I mean giving them direct experience through means of storytelling. I tell my story of bipolar disorder to hundreds of people a year in person (and thousands online) and it really is effective in changing people’s minds about bipolar disorder and mental illness. Truly. If your average person with no experience with mental illness takes an hour to hear me talk, minds change. Of course, I can’t change every mind, eradicate every stigma, or make everyone treat us with dignity and respect, but I do make a pretty good impact where I can.
Can You Tell Your Story of Mental Illness to Help People “Get” It?
I’m not saying wear a neon sign here, but can you talk about your mental illness in a real and honest way with people that gives them a window into your experience? Now, you’re probably not going to be like me. You’re probably not going to do it in front of crowds or with strangers at a wedding, but can you do it with one person in your life? Can you change one mind? Can you offer one person a glimpse of what it’s really like to have bipolar, depression, schizophrenia or another mental illness? Can you do it?
People Will “Get” It If We Make the Effort
In spite of my earlier statement, I feel like I am helping people “get” it, on the good days. Sure, on the bad days it feels like I’m swimming against a tsunami, but on other days, I do see the changes I create around me and I know that there are effects that I will never know about but that are positive.
But we have to make the effort to make this happen. If accurate information hadn’t been widely disseminated about HIV and AIDS, for example, we’d all still be walking around afraid to shake hands with people. If people with cancer hadn’t spoken of their illness widely then we wouldn’t see early screening and detection for better outcomes. In short, if these people didn’t do the work, we wouldn’t “get” their illnesses either.
Now, I know it’s unfair to say to someone who is sick to make additional effort. I know that sucks and I know that many people won’t want to do it. Really, that’s okay. But if you’re well enough, and strong enough, I do hope you’ll consider it because in the end it really is in our own best interest. People “getting” it is what will end the discrimination, prejudice and stigma once and for all.