Helping others understand mental illness is no mean feat. When it comes to tackling this problem, no one would blame you if you just felt overwhelmed. Some people are very resistant to the realities of mental illness, and creating understanding seems almost impossible. That said, while not everyone will respond positively, I believe we can help others understand mental illness.

[Note: While this piece assumes you have a mental illness, these tips work even if you have a loved one with a mental illness. You can simply use your experience with that loved one in place of your experience with mental illness proper.]

What Is It to Help Someone Understand Mental Illness?

When I talk about having an understanding of mental illness, yes, I mean the scientifically-accepted version of mental illness. That means understanding that mental illness is an illness of the brain and that the bio-psycho-social model (more on that below) explains what impacts a person with mental illness. It also means that the person needs an understanding of the importance of treatment and has empathy for those with mental illness, just like they would for a person with other kinds of illness. If we could achieve all that, we would have a true understanding of mental illness.

Helping Others Understand What Mental Illness Is

I have talked about how to explain bipolar disorder to people before. Now, I’ll talk about helping others understand mental illness in general.

When trying to help someone understand mental illness, I think it’s important to make these points:

  • Medical science agrees that mental illness exists in the brain.
  • The brain is an organ, just like your lungs or pancreas, and just like your lungs or pancreas, it can get sick. Mental illness is this type of sickness.
  • The brain is the most complex organ in our body. It makes sense that its illnesses are hard to understand and least understood.
  • Mental illnesses are usually partly genetic, although not always. (This gives you a good opportunity to talk about any history that may be in your family.)
  • More than just biology affects mental illness. We now understand that biology, psychology, and environmental factors play a role in developing and treating mental illness. (That is the bio-psycho-social model.) We can change our environment and psychology to aid in recovering from a mental illness or to live with it more successfully.

You may also want to list famous and successful people who live with mental illness (there are many sources for this). (I recommend you use examples of people who have openly talked about their mental illness and not those who are just assumed to have a mental illness, such as in the case of posthumous diagnosis.) While I consider famous people to be quite irrelevant, other people like to know these things.

Finally, I recommend having resources on hand for more information if the person wants it. My book is one such resource, as it is both educational and experience-based. Other sources include:

Helping Others Understand the Experience of Mental Illness

Now is the time to talk about what it’s actually like to live with your mental illness. If quotes from others help, do use those too, but the best thing you can do is talk about your own experience. Education about mental illness in general, or even about your mental illness in general, is good, but talking about your personal experience is better.

I know that talking about your own experience can be daunting, but remember, you get to choose the aspects of your mental illness that you want to talk about. If you have depression, you might not talk about suicidality, but you might talk about how hard it is to get out of bed, for example. No matter what you choose, I recommend discussing how it feels and providing concrete examples. This will help people understand mental illness the best.

Now is also the time to talk about memoirs by those with mental illness. Many of those really elucidate the experience of living with a mental illness. (And, for whatever reason, sometimes a well-written book can speak to a person more effectively than a loved one. It also provides validation of your own experience.)

Helping Others Understand the Treatment of Mental Illness

The first thing to make clear to anyone you’re trying to help understand a mental illness is that while mental illness is not curable, per se, people can successfully live with it. In fact, some people do recover quite well with treatment. (Which part of that you want to emphasize depends on your particular illness and your particular experience.)

As mental illness is affected by multiple factors, it’s important to say all the things that can help your mental illness. Of course, the main treatment methods are therapy and medication in most cases (the bio and the psycho parts of the model), but you should also say that environmental factors also play an important role.

Examples of this include:

And whatever other technique you use to help your mental health flourish. Your techniques may be unique to you, and that’s okay. Again, talking about your experience can be very helpful here.

And please don’t be scared to mention hospitalization if that’s part of your experience or if that’s a possibility for you. If you need to talk about that, you can simply say that sometimes more intensive treatment is needed, and that can be offered in a psychiatric facility. Psychiatric facilities are not like they are in the movies. They are now medical centers that work to help people, not punish them.

The reason you want to make this point is because you want to make clear that you have some control over your illness. You are not merely a victim of biology; improvement does happen, even if it requires daily effort. You are also making it clear that you are taking responsibility for your illness by implementing healthy, helpful habits. Hopefully, this will make the person supportive of your efforts.

Helping Others Understand Living with a Mental Illness

As you may have noticed, all along, I’ve been saying you should be talking about your personal experience to help someone understand a mental illness. Hopefully, you’ve been doing that.

Regardless, now is the time to talk about your current state. Are you struggling? Are you plateauing? Are you in recovery? What do you want to say about how you’re living right now? What are your goals? How do you plan on reaching them?

I hate to put the onus on you, but as you’re trying to help someone understand mental illness, you should also help them to feel hopeful moving forward. Ways to do this are:

  • Talking about where you started compared to where you are now
  • Talking about what you have overcome
  • Mentioning that research is ongoing and evolving every day
  • Talking about how you stay hopeful

I know if you’re not feeling hopeful at the time, this can be hard, but remember, even if you’re not feeling it, hope is real. And you know what? If you’re not feeling hopeful, you can always just say that. You can say that while you are not feeling very hopeful right now, you know that things will change over time because things always have (and always do).

Be Prepared for Questions When Helping Someone Understand Mental Illness

One other thing to remember is that questions are a natural part of the learning process; in fact, they’re positive. While they may seem invasive, they likely aren’t meant to be. Try to answer questions as openly and honestly as you can. And if you don’t know an answer, just use that as an opportunity to learn something together.

Why Help Someone Understand Mental Illness?

It’s up to you whether you think it’s worth your effort to help someone understand mental illness. It may not always be worth it. Some people are nonresponsive. Some people are anti-science. Some people are antipsychiatry. Some people’s opinions are simply immovable. I understand that. But I do believe that more people than you think can gain a real understanding of mental illness if we do the work to help them. I understand this places the burden on us — which isn’t fair — but if it’s important to you, it is something that can be done.