Lack of Understanding of Mental Illness

January 5, 2012 Natasha Tracy

Last night I was feeding my cats and thinking suicidal thoughts - I like to call that a Wednesday night. And I was thinking to myself that no one (save others in my position) understands what that is like - to go from some sort of normal person in the daytime to a sobbing, suicidal headcase at night. I thought about the fact that I have spent eight years talking about this very disease, this very state, this very problem, and yet still, people don't get it. No matter how many words I use, no matter how I phrase it, people simply do not understand.

So what do we do with the lack of understanding by others?

Lack of Understanding about Mental Illness

It's reasonable that people don't innately understand mental illness - it's a hard thing to grasp and most people don't have anything to really compare it to. And let's face it, I don't understand how such transformations are possible so how realistic is it to think that others can?

Lack of Understanding Hurts


And, of course, this lack of understanding hurts, because most often what it results in is people telling me (and other mentally ill people) that we're lying, making things up, exaggerating, being dramatic. When this genuinely isn't the case. And it hurts when people insult you and don't accept your genuine reality. It hurts to be told that you're lying.

What to Do about a Lack of Understanding

So I've reached a conclusion - some people understand and some people don't; some people never will. And it's my job to accept that. You can't change others and you can't make them accept you or your mental illness. Their lack of understanding, in the end, diminishes them, not me. I will keep doing what I do, and try to promoted understanding, education and awareness, but I'm going to accept that not everyone can get there. Not in my life, not in your life, and certainly not online. And it doesn't matter how many words and nifty metaphors I use to explain it.

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

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2012, January 5). Lack of Understanding of Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 24 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.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

Debra Stang
January, 5 2012 at 7:19 am

Hi Natasha,
I love this post. I have bipolar disorder. I don't blurt out the fact to everyone I meet, but neither do I make any effort to hide it. Most of the people I deal with are very accepting, but I have run into a few who just don't get it. I think you've come to the right conclusion that not getting it is their problem. All I can do is speak my truth. What anyone else does with it is up to them, not me.

Natasha Tracy
January, 5 2012 at 7:27 am

Hi Debra,
Well said.
- Natasha

Thomas Lynch
January, 5 2012 at 7:57 am

Thanks so much for not only helping me understand my mental illness but also for helping me understand how to deal with the people surrounding me your advice has definitely helped me move my life forward ~Tom

January, 5 2012 at 12:28 pm

I have had many conversations over the years (diagnosed in 1987) about suicide. I have heard from others that they believe a person goes to hell if they commit suicide, others have said suicidal thinking people should be locked up, or they just need medication, or "what a selfish thing to do".
All these comments are perhaps said in a persons hope to deter a suicidal person from acting on the feeling. The comments do not eliminate the intense (sometimes overwhelming) desire to end the pain.
If science is correct that the right and left hemispheres of our brains think different then perhaps that is where some help has been left untouched.
Maybe if more bi-polar people (includes me) were taught to use bilateral physical exercise so we might think with both hemispheres we could prevent more suicides? Just a thought

January, 5 2012 at 1:44 pm

Thank you.

January, 5 2012 at 2:02 pm

I can relate so much to what you wrote here. Although I was diagnosed with BPD I often have suicidal thoughts for what some 'normal' people would consider no reason. It is hard for people to understand and before my initial attempt and then diagnoses I was probably just as bad at the time. Traci brings up an interesting comment though about the belief that those who commit suicide will go to hell or that they are selfish. From my own experiences when suicidal thoughts are occurring in my mind I some how equate it with it being better off for everyone. I have to admit that before my initial attempt I too had always held the belief that those who commit suicide will go to hell, so that was always what stopped me before. Now at times I question to myself if the same is true for trying. Suicidal thoughts can be so terrifying and difficult to explain to others. I have found your other postings still very relevant to my own mental illness and want to say keep up the writing :)

January, 5 2012 at 3:18 pm

The comment, "....I was feeding my cats, thinking suicidal thoughts." is so consistent with how sometimes the feeling may have been lingering and it dawns on me what I'm thinking, More and more these days (since 2005 when I started taking 'lamictal') I don't go into the head spins of what others think. I think, "Sh*t, not again! I hate this." However the intensity I felt for years (sometimes acting on) has diminished enough for me to remember I don't want to hurt those who love me by being absent. Then I disappear to my bed and try to sleep it off. Kava Kava has helped me immensely when stress seems to be eating me up.

January, 5 2012 at 5:03 pm

I, too, could so relate to your first sentence. In describing my suicidal ideations, my psychologist has commented that the thoughts are very seductive and she is exactly right. But the word seductive is never one that a person without a mental illness would ever associate with suicidal feelings. I just keep those kinds of things to myself so as not to freak the normals out.

January, 5 2012 at 5:07 pm

hi natasha,
thank you for persisting all this while in creating an awareness about BPD. Just wanted to let you know that your posts are a great source of comfort to me. plz continue the good work.

Natasha Tracy
January, 5 2012 at 5:10 pm

Hi Tom,
Thank-you so much for taking the time to write me that. You're welcome. I'm honoured in any small part that I could play.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 5 2012 at 5:13 pm

Hi Traci,
Yes, people have many feelings about suicide. Me, I try not to be judgemental about the whole thing. You can't truly get inside someone else's head and it's really not fair to judge them as if you can. And people suggesting that others are "selfish" or "going to hell" rather tick me off. That just puts more pressure on people who are clearly under enough already.
I don't know about multi-hemisphere thinking preventing suicides but it's an interesting thought.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 5 2012 at 5:14 pm

You're welcome. Happy to help.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 5 2012 at 5:18 pm

Hi Elizabeth,
Many people who think about suicide or who attempt suicide often mistakenly think that others would be "better off," but of course, this is just the illness speaking. When in our rational minds, we know this not to be true. But the illness can be very convincing.
I can't say anything about hell only that I believe it not to exist but others, naturally, would disagree with me on that point. I think that any god worth believing in wouldn't punish someone for being in pain. But that's me.
I'm glad you've found my writings helpful. I'll be here.
- Natasha

Pam Franklin
January, 5 2012 at 6:01 pm

That first sentence just says it all.

Natasha Tracy
January, 5 2012 at 6:34 pm

Hi Traci,
It's good to hear you've found some things that work for you. Thought-stopping is always a great skill to have but sometimes it requires the right meds too.
Kava is an interesting one and I know some people find it helpful with anxiety.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 5 2012 at 6:37 pm

Hi Beth,
I have written much about the seductive nature of suicide and self-harming thoughts over the years, so no worry about freaking anyone out on this side of my keyboard.
You are absolutely right, those thoughts speak with seduction. It's how people end up taking their own lives. It seems like a good idea at the time, but that's the illness talking in its very convincing (and seductive) way.
- Natasha

Dr Musli Ferati
January, 5 2012 at 7:34 pm

To understand others indicates both great social skill and a capacity of genuine empathy. These psycho-social peculiarities are the main prerequisite of mental well-being of respective person. But to understand a person with mental disorder requires somewhat more than these pro-humane characteristic that would contribute to perceive the psycho-social disturbing of any person who suffer from mental illness. One of these needs is the affinity to know the nature of mental diseases that causes many disturbance in daily relationship as well as in life functioning. So, it should to impose the necessity of a substantial education of community to real phenomenology of mental diseases. This recommendation seeks a re-evaluate of our attitudes on interpersonal relation that unfortunately are overloaded with many concealed antisocial behaves. It may to look as banal suggestion, but to accomplish this beneficial pursuit it should to make hard effort in improvement the dysocial model of interpersonal relation that actually now predominate.

Gigi Marsten
January, 6 2012 at 9:55 am

Natasha, I think what your daytime behavior exhibits is that you are high functioning with your mental illness. I don't have a mental illness (my 35 yr old daughter is Bipolar and has BPD), but I have "issues" and "traits" of some, I'm sure.
I am pushing 70, and I have worked all my life. When I'm at work, I'm "on", I'm efficient, people like me and I get the job done - no matter what it is. When I get home, the walls come down and sometimes I just feel tired of living! I'm not suicidal... I just don't know what else I'm supposed to do!
I have suffered so much with worry and fear for my daughter for the past several years - she's been homeless, in and out of jail, completely out of control and in the state hospital on three occasions. Sometimes the emotional pain, for me, was so intense I just wished I would die.. just so the pain would stop! I've prayed and prayed (and I'll never stop).
For the time being, my daugher is doing well. From her last stay at the state hospital, she has been in residential treatment for the past 4 months. She has never come this far before... so, my prayers have been answered and I feel hope and peace, and I am loving it for as long as it lasts. I believe she will make it ... If she stays on medication! She is "herself" while on the medication, but someone I do not know when she's not. She has gained insight and that is majorly important, especially for some sort of "recovery". I'm not in denial - I know mental illness does not go away. But I am so gratefful.
The sad, sad part for me - as the mother of three daughters - is that one of her sisters is more compassionate - even though she tends to view her sister's mental illness as something that needs "tough love" or "intervention". Her oldest sister (the daughter with mental illness is the youngest) has completely cut her out of her life. Talk about "walkiing on eggshells"... I don't talk about the younger sister around her, and she doesn't ask about her. I find it very ironic that she has "helped" her in the past (mostly sending her Care Pkgs because of her homelessness; she has taken some crazy phone calls in the past), but now that she is on a firmer path, she has dropped her completely. Avoids her calls, doesn't acknowledge any cards or letters she may have sent... nothing! I don't get that. But, there's nothing I can do about it. It just hurts me, because it hurts her younger sister - that her sister has given up on her.
Sorry... I really didn't mean to go on for so long in a "comment". I hope it's OK.

wilda egger
January, 6 2012 at 2:16 pm

Hello Natasha:
I feel so grateful to have found your blog. I have a bipolar disorder and attempted suicide two months ago. I have been searching for someone who understands. Suicidal thoughts are seductive indeed. I feel ashamed of what I did and guilty for what I put my family through. I am on medication and in therapy. I have a supportive family of which I am presently relying on. And I still have times when I want to give up. I also want to be a productive member of society, but am not past my fears yet and confident in myself. Thank you for sharing.

Edward Spagnola
January, 7 2012 at 8:40 am

I find most people don't understand mental illness. Very few do. And very few can ride the waves of someone (like me) with BPD. The ones who are close to me (after many years) find it very difficult to endure the ups and downs of my condition. And, as i have grown older the worst my condition has become. I am very resistant to most drugs, and the ones i am on now have serious side effects that i just have to live with. When i try to stop taking my meds i have serious manic episodes that cause serious damage to myself and everything around me. As far as suicide goes, i think about it everyday. It's not that i really want to be dead, i just want a degree of separation from my own thoughts and feelings. They come in such intense waves, and the loss of how i once lived/functioned just swirls in my head. I struggle to find acceptance about my own condition which i think it makes it harder for those around me to have more understanding. Nevertheless, i no longer try to explain what my condition is, i just end up going in circles and become frustrated with myself. At this point, i just try to keep my mouth shut and take prescribed medication. And, hope that some day i will level out and feel close to normal.

wilda egger
January, 7 2012 at 12:24 pm

You put my feelings into words when you said, "...the loss of how i once lived/functioned just swirls in my head." I have snapshots of that time of my life in my mind and I sort through them on a daily basis. I desire to have the vitality and zest for life I once had and the confidence in myself-I really miss that. And I'm frozen somewhere between grief and rage. I feel like I've been robbed, stripped of my identity. I try in vain to get some semblance of that person back. Striving toward acceptance as you are doing would bring me more peace I think. Thank you for sharing.

January, 7 2012 at 4:30 pm

Most of the first paragraph sounds like me right now. I'm so sick of this. :(

January, 7 2012 at 6:41 pm

I have been BP since I was roughly 17, some 26 years now. I’m BP1 so I have more ups than downs, but I do get depression usually after a being in a long stint of mania. Regarding lack of understanding, what I have found throughout the years personally is I am very upfront with my disease. When I am explaining it to someone new, I generally do so and move on. I know at that point the person is probably expecting some sort of crazy actions from me in the near future, but this doesn’t seem to happen. It just goes to show me that most don’t really understand the illness. When I am experiencing depression, I usually keep to myself and have learned to mask it quite well. When I am in mania I have more problems controlling that and people find it quite amusing that I am either talking too fast, moving too fast, driving too fast, shopping too much, or working too long. I have a slew of bipolar friends that I keep in contact with and my observations from them is when they are in depression, please don’t bring me down and when they are in mania, please slow down and bit cause I too find it amusing and humorous. I find that their moods, can definitely affect my moods. They can drive me into depression or their mania can fuel my own.
I have been blessed to have a very understanding wife, kids, and parents who don’t have the disease, but have done everything in their power to try and understand it. That only works if I am truly honest with them. Meaning I must be straight up with them about my moods, my thoughts and my feelings. If I have a day that I feel hopeless and can’t see the light through the fog, I’ve got to be frank with them. If I have days when I can’t get out of bed, don’t answer emails or phone calls, I must also keep them in the loop to do my share letting them in on my BP. So I think it’s a two way street, we with the illness need to be upfront explaining ourselves so others without it can relate.
So I feel comfortable with myself knowing that I am trying to do my part in the education process. BP can be both a blessing and a curse. I’ve been in senior management in the healthcare administration field for two decades now. It’s a blessing that I can work days without leaving the office, finishing up the work of two people. But it’s a curse to know I am probably taking years off the end of my life due to the crazy hours I keep, both at the office and at home. The only thing I regret is now that my kids are getting older, they personally see some of the issues I usually in the past have dealt with in secrecy.
I have also found that being extremely educated isn’t always a blessing with this disease. If you weren’t you would simply take the damn pills and go to therapy. But being educated will send you on a quest to fix yourself and think that, because you are currently feeling fine, it’s OK to get off your medication. We’re so smart that we don’t even see the reason we are feeling fine is because of the medication. I do go to therapy every week, believe it or not with the same therapist since I was 17. I relay on to her all my current issue, my thoughts, my problems, and if it’s only to get these things out on the table, it’s worth the copay. It’s also beneficial to spend an hour once a week conversing with a highly educated person in the mental disease field and bouncing things off of her. But I am always searching for something, not a cure, but for more of a harness to better control this problem. And for killing myself, well that would be one way to end this, but what will this do to my wife, what about my kids and who will teach them and my parents would probably be quite disappointed with me. After all they have put in the time with me; I need to return the favor. It just goes to show, the easy road is not always the best road to be on.
Johnny Boy

Amy Gamble
January, 9 2012 at 5:13 pm

I am holding out hope that one day more people will understand mental illness/brain disorders. One day people will understand we are "born this way," and it was not something we brought on ourselves. One day compassion will prevail and many people who have a mental illness will recover with better support systems. One day sporting events around the country will raise awareness and funding for mental illness just like they do for cancer.
I believe "one day" will come I just don't know when...

Natasha Tracy
January, 10 2012 at 6:17 am

Hi Ash,
We all feel that way sometimes. I have felt that way more times than I can count. The only thing I can do is remind you that it hasn't always been like this in the past and it won't always be like this in the future. Try to hang onto that and know that what you're feeling is perfectly normal. Everyone get's bone-tired from feeling sick all the time.
- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
January, 10 2012 at 6:21 am

I agree, one day _will_ come, but we don't know when. Until then, we just have to surround ourselves with people who do get it and wait for others to catch up.
- Natasha

RaDonna Fox
January, 14 2012 at 6:26 am

What really bothers me the most is that in all of my life I have seen many flyers and campaigns to aid homeless pets, as there is an underlying air that the mentally ill have control over their illness and they are somehow above a more necessary need for care than homeless animals. There are many U.S. counties that give more money to homeless animal shelters than to homeless people. It is sad, and people really don't understand and it is to the detriment of all people that they fail in this area! We do need to promote understanding, we need better advocacy groups, thrift stores the menally ill, etc....

Laurie Battterton
March, 9 2012 at 9:03 am

I had a "Wednesday night" last Sunday morning.Was feeling outloud and with passion, a little suicidal. Me (ex now) boyfriend tried to ignore my "craziness" and continue to watch the more important animated TV show blasting in the livngroom. How could my agony and crying jag compete with that so I did the logical thing and keyed his car. Managed to get the hell out of there and try to escape the inner turmoil, then came the text after he saw the scratch. Now he was paying some attention. Words were used by him that I didn't know existed in his vocabulary. Now I am in the position of trying to find a new place to live with my 16 year old mentally ill son and two dogs I refuse to give up. Natasha, love this site for it's brutal honesty and the comfort that gives me.

March, 14 2012 at 8:44 pm

Hi Natasha,
I have 5 cats, so Monday,Tuesday,Wednesday,Thursday and Friday are pretty much covered. Feeding my 2 dogs pretty much covers the balance of the week, if you know what I mean?
I agree with you that it is difficult for people who have not lived with mental illness to understand us. Though I don't want to kill myself, the intensity of my suicidal thoughts can be severe at times, yet my husband may comment with a loving smile on his face that I am looking happy in that moment/day! It is both confusing and scary to realize that the person who knows me the most intimately, doesn't know the darker side of me at all, or to what extent, and how creatively, I can obsess about my own demise.
It is not as though he hasn't had enough proof of my lability - there have been several hospitalizations and enough therapy in the past to put a serious dent in our savings.
I think the gap between us feeling understood (or not) by our loved ones, is when they (out of necessity), become desensitized to our illness. They cannot, on a daily basis, contemplate the prospect of our possible completed suicide, or they would in turn become very depressed themselves. Someone has to hold it together while we are unravelling. They would be living with CTSD (continuous traumatic stress disorder), if they confronted our demons as often as we do.
So, when family and friends come together in grief at the funeral of a loved one who completed a suicide, and, with furrowed brows, agree that the actions of the deceased 'came out of the blue' , or that the individual had seemed so 'stable and happy' lately, it is surely a symptom of their collective numbing and denial of the horrors of this illness? I can't say I blame them! Who wants to dance with the devil every day of their lives - certainly not me, but I don't have that enviable choice.
Some of us DO understand :-)

Fear, False Beliefs and Blame in Mental Health Stigma | Surviving Mental Health Stigma Blog
May, 13 2012 at 9:18 pm

[...] fears, most can agree that, in general, we fear what we don’t understand. And when that thing we don’t understand, like mental illness, gets portrayed in a negative manner through the media, we simply start to fear it more.The media [...]

May, 14 2012 at 4:22 pm

I have learned so much helpful information from this blog about bipolar disease. Thank you Natasha and so many of you who have been so open and honest. My brother "complete suicide" three very long months ago as a result of his bipolar disease. I have to politely disagree with some earlier comments. You do not know what is going through the minds of the incredibly bereaved who are trying to answer the why, why, why. What if, what if I had.. Etc, etc. Not only are we trying to accept and process what has happened and how we could have prevented it... And in many cases, family are doing all they can or know how to help. Believe me, you constantly worry about the worst thing that could happen. But once a loved one has completed suicide, there is a transference of the pain, the anxiety and the depression. Many family members at a funeral can't even comprehend what has turned their lives upside down and how their loved one could have been in so much pain that they're would be better to leave us all behind. And in many cases, the bipolar person was trying to hide their disease to protect ( insert here, job, family, reputation, etc - because of the terrible stigma.) the family has hundreds of people who want to know why - perhaps they are from out of town or work colleagues, or close friends that did not know or see the signs. But to be insensitive to those who are grieving the death of a loved one that they feel responsible and guilty for or about is just not fair. My hope is to honor my brother's life by educating people about depression and suicide prevention and I have found this blog to be the most informative so far.

November, 13 2012 at 7:11 am

Hi Natasha
Great post. Your writing really inspires me. I am afraid I went from some sort of normal person to a sobbing, suicidal headcase within the span of about 5 minutes at work today and THAT, nobody understands. In fact, I'm still trying to figure it out myself. Anyway, I just really wanted to thank you, reading your blog always helps.

November, 13 2012 at 9:16 pm

Hi Meriel,
I remember hiding under the desk at work because I had gone from normal to crazy in a few minutes and I didn't want to explain it to anyone. Only problem was a tradie came in to fix the airconditioning while I was under the desk. Sobbing turned to laughter, and as he walked out of the room he turned around to see me standing there, He looked like he'd seen a ghost!

January, 6 2013 at 1:35 am

Hi Everyone
Just to say I have been studying the bible for 30 years now and there is know where in the bible where it says that if you commit suicide you will go to hell. In fact there are occasions where people, like Moses, Elijah, Jonah and Job felt suicidal and cried out to God about it, and he comforted them.
Whilst the bible is not a medical book it does give comfort to the depressed, such as the many psalms, and tells us at, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 in part to," speak consolingly to the depressed soles".
This is for those of you worried that God might judge you for how you feel, but to take comfort in the knowledge that he understands.
From a fellow Bi-polar sufferer

January, 6 2013 at 2:16 am

Hi all,
just a slight adjustment to my previous blog. the bible charactors according to the bible wanted to die, not that they were suicidal. However there is no suggestion that they were suffering from mental illness just that there situation had become difficult to bear. The fact still remains that God was unerstanding of their situation.
Sorry for that.

August, 5 2014 at 1:28 am

"...and certainly not online."
That is not true. You have helped me understand BPD immensely. I cannot thank you enough.
Love from Finland,

December, 24 2015 at 6:25 am

People just don't get it. I see it all the time. They thing sad is sad, and they just don't understand I not even sure what to call it lack of eduaction, or care? They think stress is stress and it's not. A person with mental health issues always shows signs of distress if u understand. I try to tell ppl that and it's like talking to the wall. Then when bad things happen ppl are in shock. . Can only say ppl don't have the capability to understand. I try to teach ppl tp watch for warning signs to lower stress and help a person with doing different things. It's like I don't say anything at times they do the exact opposite and wonder why everything fell apart. I feel bad for ppl with mental health issues. Many of them have families who don't get it I can't imagine how hard it would be to live and have nobody help or understand u and inturn make life difficult.

May, 5 2016 at 5:24 am

You're right. It diminishes them. I think they fear mental illness so much, that they won't believe it's anything but a poor attitude. To suffer with this your entire life is extremely hard. Just because they can't see it, they'd rather believe it's bull.

January, 3 2022 at 5:54 pm

I have a friend, bless, who we’ve been friends for 25 years. Who is trying. She did NAMI, she constantly checks up and give “the advice you are giving me is for someone else, who does not have a mood disorder. I love you, but shut up.” Or “why aren’t you…better? It’s been 8 years.”
Yep. And I have been able to get off three medications, no longer use Tinder when manic, and I not a true crime podcast waiting to happen. This is not going away. It’s not the flu.
Now I love this woman with every ounce of my being. But I finally had to tell her advice is terrible, ask how she is, and pass me that bottle of Prosecco because we have many other things to talk about than my lithium levels.

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