What does “mental illness” mean, really?

Mental Health 2

This is something that I have found myself struggling with for a really long time now. I am classified as having a “mental illness”. I got diagnosed. A lot. Plenty of labels have been stuck on me. I am mentally ill. But what exactly does that say?

I have no ready answer to that, so I’ll just think out loud instead.

Most of all it seems to say that something is wrong with me. And the term illness suggests that maybe I should be quarantined, separated, put into bed, treated and cured, if possible. That’s what you do with ill people after all. But then, it’s not any old regular illness. It’s a mental illness. Sick in the head. And ooooh, wait, that could be dangerous. Surely it’s debilitating. Could it also be catching?

“Children, quick, come inside, stay away from that girl! Damnit, Jenny, don’t touch her! Her brain has got cooties! Do you want to go crazy, too?!”

While being a little bit loopy, eccentric or dramatic can be quite modern or fashionable, being properly mentally ill is a different story, just like it is one thing to add an ostrich feather to your hat, and quite another to have the whole ostrich tagging along.

With having a proper mental illness there comes stigma and prejudice. And while people consider it offensive to accuse a paraplegic of laziness for carting around in a wheelchair, or a deaf person of willfulness for not coming when called, many people have no such inhibitions when it comes to mental illness. Here are a couple of the prejudices I have personally encountered, that people were not shy to voice.

The mentally ill live off the honest men’s taxes.
The mentally ill are dangerous and violent.
The mentally ill are lazy / over-indulged / selfish / …
The mentally ill are irrational and should not be listened to.
The mentally ill are retarded / deranged / crazy/ …
The mentally ill should get locked away.
The mentally ill don’t know what REAL problems look like.
The mentally ill are abnormal.
The mentally ill should never be trusted.

There is very little true understanding around about what mental illness really means. Which I find a really sad thing, especially bearing in mind that what, one out of every four, six or ten people is believed to have mental health issues? And if that is so, is it really such an abnormal thing? I think not. And I think an improved understanding of what mental illness is would be very becoming.

Here’s what I think mental illness is:

Mental illness is an umbrella term. It’s devoid of any particular meaning beyond saying “this person is struggling with a longer-term condition that causes psychological distress”.

Mental illness is involuntary. Sure, there can be secondary benefits to mental illnesses. But I doubt anyone would choose those over the benefits of being psychologically healthy if the latter was a true option for them.

Mental illness is an amplification of normal conditions, which everyone should at least to some degree be able to relate to. It’s not some otherworldly, alien or devilish ‘thing’, but just very severe and intense versions of stuff everyone knows. Yes, even the weird and grotesque looking crap. Even stuff like delusions and hallucinations. Or have you never, not even briefly, thought you’d heard or seen something that ended up being just a trick of your mind?

Mental illness is often the reflection of shit the person has had to figure out to live with somehow, not a genuine trait of the person. Kind of like that: if I taped a pin, point up, under the sole of your foot, you’d pretty darn quickly learn to limp without putting pressure on the pin. And after limping long enough you might even grow so used to limping that you’d still limp, even if I removed the pin. It wouldn’t be you having a physical disability, just your familiar and safe way to walk. Your muscles would have developed accordingly and therefore you’d probably have a hard time suddenly walking “like a normal person” again. Mental illness is similar. Except you often can’t even see or recall the stuff it developed as a reaction to as clearly as you can see a pin. Which means that often the person with a mental illness will not even know why some things are so difficult, why she is reacting this or that way, or why she can’t just behave “normally”.

Mental illness is different for everyone. Just as working for company X is probably a little different for every single employee. There are different kinds and severities of mental illness, just like there are different fields of work in company X. And even two colleagues who share the same workspace can have a fundamentally different experience, just like two people who suffer from the same mental illness can. So don’t assume to know what it’s like for someone else. Not even if you are a doctor, shrink or therapist and have seen plenty of people with the same condition already. Despite the possible similarities, it’s still a unique experience for everyone.

Mental illness can and should be understood. Because it is an amplification and sometimes distortion of the “normal” experience, it can be very confusing or grotesque looking. Most of all for the person who has it, but also for others. Yet whatever the symptoms, they usually are meaningful, because humans generally don’t pick their behavior at random by spinning their lucky action wheel of fortune. Since it isn’t random, it can be understood. It is also worth understanding. Yes, even the weird stuff. Because often it will stop seeming so weird once you come to understand it. So instead of marveling with an open mouth in wonder or horror or disbelief, try to understand what’s going on. It helps.

That’s all I can think of at the moment, and I’m sure there is more. But at least it’s a start. I’ll add more if I can think of more. I’ll be happy if you share your thoughts on the subject, too!


46 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Denise Hisey
    Jan 02, 2013 @ 13:51:38

    You’ve made some great points, here.
    One of my observations about people’s response to mental illness is that it is somehow threatening to them, therefore they push it away at all costs. This ties in to your point about it being an amplification of normal. Physical illness doesn’t threaten people because they can’t see themselves with a broken leg or lung cancer. But, being a little ‘off’ or depressed is too close to home.

    • Lola
      Jan 02, 2013 @ 14:06:21

      Thank you, Denise! 🙂

      I think that’s a really good point that mental illness may appear threatening to people, BECAUSE it is an amplification of the normal that everyone can relate to. Maybe that’s also why people insist it’s something so very “different” from themselves and NOT part of the normal experience. That probably feels safer than realizing it’s something that can probably happen to anyone under certain circumstances, just like nobody is perfectly safe from physical harm. So I guess while I find it understandable that people react that way, it’s also totally not nice to be seen as way different, bad, self-indulgent and whatnot and I doubt that it’s very helpful in the long run and on a grand scale. I really wish mental health would be given a good and serious look that aimed at actually understanding it, instead of one that seems to look for quick ways to make the mentally ill get taken care of somehow, so everyone can feel safe again.

    • unconstructed
      Jan 03, 2013 @ 11:08:15

      I believe people are scared of mental illness being real because it means that they could develop it. A disease of the mind. There is no itch to scratch, no cast to get pretty signatures on (although if someone feels like signing my head, that’s cool with me), no wheelchair to show the extremity of disease, no physical manifestation. It is to them a necrosis that cannot be seen, a foreign influence that brings death in small patches and grows.

      Sometimes physical symptoms are obvious, and I do not mean to play that down in any way, many issues spring from that, I’m just speaking of the subset that don’t. I have a tic disorder, but that doesn’t have the same feel as what I’m talking about.

      They don’t want to know their brain can be consumed like legs are consumed by polio, to know their brain has the potential to go awry. We want to believe our minds are our own and we control them completely. I would forward them to those with OCD, the dark vestiges leaping to the minds eye and pouring black hell and destruction into the sufferer, A feeding tube of poison without a visible “off’ switch, the mind is consumed.

      Also there’s the issue of psychiatric medication, probably “mind control drugs” in some eyes, the mentally ill and those who are not, though for different reasons.

      Anyway, that’s longer than I meant it to be. Great post and great comments everyone 🙂

      • Lola
        Jan 03, 2013 @ 13:12:39

        Yes, I agree with you that mental illness probably scares people, especially because it’s not as visible as a cast or a wheelchair, but might still happen to anyone. I mean I can understand why that seems scary to people. But then, maybe it becomes less scary the more people develop an understanding of what it really IS, instead of throwing about prejudices and misinformation and stuff. So I really wish people would try to understand better, not only individuals, but also society as a whole. That would be cool!

        Anyway, thank you for leaving a comment. 🙂

  2. simplybluey
    Jan 02, 2013 @ 14:30:33

    Excellent post. Thank you. x

  3. Diversity is Art
    Jan 02, 2013 @ 21:28:07

    I loved this post, especially the last part, that it can and should be understood, for me mental illness are not random like most people think, they make sense and are very interesting ways the human mind has to dealing with things life throws at us and sometimes to alterations in our brains that are still amplifications of the typical reality of most people.
    In my life I compare having a mental illness with having a developmental disability, I have both and they are judged by people as “weird”, except different kinds of weird and sometimes people think it’s the same thing, in my experience mental illness is still how most people think or would think if life turns out certain way and they have few resources to cope with, that turns into diagnosis like PTSD, personality disorders and others or if they are born with a brain that is different they can have bipolar or schizophrenia, that is still part of what people experience but stronger and more chaotic, is different from what I see as having a developmental disability that is more complicated to explain and making people able to relate to you, it should be respected and it’s not random either and it also makes sense but with a completely different logic and process from the “normal” mind.
    Not sure if I managed to explain anything and I’m tired of typing on my iPad, basically I liked your post and agree with everything. 🙂
    Your blog is great.

    • Lola
      Jan 03, 2013 @ 06:49:28

      Thank you for your comment! 🙂 I think that it can and should be understood is very important. Especially because many people seem to have fears about coming in contact with “mental illness” (eeeek, brain cooties! 😉 ) or those bad prejudices that can end up being quite destructive. I believe understanding something helps reduce those fears and prejudices, and especially in a society that seeks solutions for dealing with the prevalence mental illness, it seems a bit dangerous to want to do so without understanding what it actually IS first.

  4. gypsy116
    Jan 02, 2013 @ 21:34:43

  5. mm172001
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 00:30:31

    Reblogged this on Mm172001's Blog.

  6. Diversity is Art
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 00:45:24

    Reblogged this on Diversity is Art.

  7. Clayton
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 01:44:03

    I think you are absolutely right about this. Mental illness is a misnomer for a lot of people.

    It’s also good that you believe it can and should be understood, and that people can sooner or later recover from it. You are an encouragement to read 🙂

    • Lola
      Jan 03, 2013 @ 06:52:20

      Thank you, Clayton! 🙂 I totally believe people can recover from mental illnesses, because I think that if it’s not something drastically different than what’s “normal”, just an amplification, then it should be possible to turn down the volume again eventually. The “how” part of that can just be quite hard to figure out, but hey, hard is not impossible, right?! And I’m happy if you find what I write encouraging! 🙂 Thank you!

  8. karenstacy
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 02:24:50

    I love this post. It is so informative and to the point. I especially liked the metaphor of walking on a pin to describe coping techniques. Thank you.

  9. Trackback: What does “mental illness” mean, really? « I may be bi-polar, but I'm medicated
  10. ilenva
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 03:35:19

    “Mental illness is an amplification of normal conditions” — I love that entire paragraph. It’s so true! If only more people saw mental illness that way and realized it’s completely relatable.. it’s not that I’m feeling and thinking this wacko crazy thoughts – I feel the same things as everyone else, just x 100. Great entry!

    • Lola
      Jan 03, 2013 @ 06:56:34

      Thank you, ilenva! 🙂 I feel the same way about the “crazy” things I experience – that what looks so crazy is really just the same things everyone knows, only at a different intensity level. But then, the good thing is that I don’t need to learn how to feel in a drastically different way, but just how to feel at a different volume, and probably how come to different conclusions about my feelings, so I can choose different behaviors. I found that quite a helpful realization! I’m happy if you can relate as well. 🙂

  11. kat
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 08:44:51

    lola, this is all so true, and so sad. i too have had the opportunity to run up against small mindedness and discrimination as you have discussed. it upsets me so much, i cant even stand up for myself against it, cant even think about facing it. its so unfair to expect someone suffering from a disease to be also be able to stand up and defend their disease and symptoms–i mean,we are already suffering! do we expect children to stand up against child labor? of course not! and in my case, it is most often my care providers who are the ones doing the discrimination! if those who specialize in mental healthcare are discriminating, then what are those who know nothing about it doing? how much discrimination and false beliefs are they holding and also treating mentally ill people like? i wish i had the umph to be able to be an activist for education, de-stigmatization, and for stopping discrimination…but i dont. right now,its all i can do do the basics.

    • Lola
      Jan 03, 2013 @ 13:09:24

      I agree, kat, it’s hard to step up against prejudice and small-mindedness and all that, when you’re the one who HAS the mental disorder. I find that hard, too. Simply because I have enough on my hands dealing with my own issues, so dealing with additional crap can just be too much when it comes up. Especially if it’s those who are assigned to “help” spreading the crap around. That frustrates me to no end. But I’m afraid I’m not cut out to be an activist either. Ah well, at least I can blog my opinion! That’s way better than nothing. And thank you for your words! 🙂

  12. nobodysreadingme
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 14:13:01

    The whole identifying business really unsttles people because they really do not want to stare into the abyss. People are frightened of me sometimes when I admit to severe depression.
    And yeah, the ‘pull yourself together’ school of thought just is plain stupid. If you’re a diabetic you can’t pull yourself together. It’s a metabolic imbalance. So is mental illness

    • Lola
      Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:04:52

      I think sometimes people are more afraid of the abyss than is necessary. Like, people getting afraid of you when you admit to severe depression, that sucks. It’s not like it’s catching or anything. But I guess that’s what comes from little understanding. People have all those weird ideas and often end up really mistaken. Just like those ‘pull yourself together’ folks. If they understood what it is about, that psychological stuff upsets the way the brain works and all that, then they would probably realize that it’s about as possible to suddenly ‘just pull yourself together’ as it is to grow an inch of hair on command.

      • nobodysreadingme
        Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:09:12

        Growing hair on command? There’s a thought.
        Can I arrange for it to be my original luscious auburn, not they grey it is now?

        • Lola
          Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:13:03

          Haha, yeah! I suppose from managing to grow hair on command it’s only a small step to choosing the color, too! Let me know if you have managed to grow a head full of of lucsiously auburn locks! 😀

          • nobodysreadingme
            Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:21:39

            Still grey, but at least it’s all there

            • Lola
              Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:27:21

              Well, that’s good! Just imagine the trying to grow more hair backfired (kind of like wanting to pull myself together extra good often does) and it fell all out! O.O I’d be devastated!!

            • nobodysreadingme
              Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:30:19

              Yep that would suck.
              Although Sinead O’Connor looked pretty good with a shaven head. And Sigourney Weaver in Alien3. Not to shabby at all

            • Lola
              Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:33:08

              Nooooooooooo. I’d wear a wig. 😉

            • nobodysreadingme
              Jan 03, 2013 @ 16:36:16

              Not me. I’d rather go bald gracefully. Bit different for women maybe.
              I took the piss out of my brother mercilessly when he started to dye his hair. I was relentless

            • Lola
              Jan 03, 2013 @ 17:46:56

              Yeah, it’s probably a bit different for women. I’m rather fond of having hair. Men can pull the bald look off easier. (Although I agree that it seems to suit some women. I just doubt I am one of them.) Poor brother of yours, though. Hehe! 😉

  13. nobodysreadingme
    Jan 03, 2013 @ 18:01:20

    My bro had it coming. He looked ludicrous. I couldn’t help myself

  14. Randelyn
    Jan 04, 2013 @ 00:12:17

    Thanks for the blog. You’re right that we need to understand what others are going through and not judge. I’ve found that some of the people that have had a hard time dealing with others with mental illness have issues themselves. Thanks again for sharing your insight.

    • Lola
      Jan 04, 2013 @ 12:42:29

      Thank you for commenting. 🙂 I agree that some people who are judging all too harshly and have a hard time with people who have mental illnesses might be doing so in an attempt to distance themselves as far as possible from the whole thing, because it’s getting a little too close for their comfort, especially if they are struggling as well, but can’t admit it to themselves.

  15. texylady
    Jan 04, 2013 @ 00:56:16

    Sometimes I even feel discrimination in the Mental Health services. One book that I read said that therapists don’t like to have too many BPD patients at once, as their neediness is so draining. Sorry to have a less desirable issue. Should I develop some alter personalities instead? Of course, since our insurance is so crappy I don’t have a therapist to annoy.

    • Lola
      Jan 04, 2013 @ 12:50:20

      Yes, I have also heard that therapists don’t really like having too much patients with BPD at once. I’ve just asked my mom about it, too (she’s a shrink, not MY shrink, but a shrink nontheless) and she agreed and said that any therapy done properly can be pretty demanding and that people with BPD can be quite high-maintenance patients. Not out of ill intent, but because the nature of BPD is that have needs and issues that involve the relationship a lot, that they need to be able to express and work through in therapy. She said having too many patients who require that level of involvement at once can become pretty draining for the therapist if they want to do their job properly and give every patient the attention and time s/he deserves. I guess it makes sense in a way. Not that it makes having BPD and feeling – yet again – like being not as desirable as other patients, any nicer. Sigh. So even when I guess I can see both sides, kinda, it still sucks. And I’m sorry that your insurance isn’t covering a therapist for you. 😦

  16. Stefanie Neumann
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 20:00:20

    Hej Lola!

    Couldn’t stop reading, so, no delay in looking your recommendation up. 🙂

    I agree in all points you mentioned.

    Looking back on my own recovery – and yes, in my experience it is not just possible to understand and live with “the issue” but also to recover from it! – I sometimes feel as if I took a lot of therapy sessions dealing with all the “ill” stuff around me rather than being the “ill” one all the time. At some point, after healing the wounds I carried, I confused “being different” with “being ill/ wrong” – like we have so often been taught in society. – And that might be what scares some people so much about what is called “mental illness”. Because in some cases it simply mirrors back to them their own shortcomings, imbalance and disintegration (I hope I am using these terms correctly) and they are more afraid of changing something for themselves than ignoring it.
    Being a highly sensitive person (e.g.) I cannot ignore imbalances or unintegrated aspects. I can only deal with it and learn how to balance and integrate my life. Instead of taking that as an inspiration to deal with their own issues, some people rather choose to label it as “ill” or “wrong” – and take that as an excuse to back away.
    Frustrating as this may be for the “labeled” person, I may also add that these people might do what they do because it is the only way for them to handle it.

    I guess it boils down to that everybody is different which is why various ways work for various people – no matter how we label it.

    Thank you for thinking out loud, Lola!

    • Lola
      Jan 11, 2013 @ 09:59:25

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. 🙂 I agree that the people who label ‘different’ as ‘wrong’ or ‘ill’ are probably for whatever reason not able to see it (or sometikes maybe admit to seeing it) any differently, be it because they are genuinely ignorant, or because they have the desire to pull away and need an excuse to justify it with, or for some other reason.

      And I agree that it’s not just possible to understand stuff like mental illness, but also to recover from the issues. I guess it’s a matter of finding out what works and what doesn’t for people, and probably also being in the right spot at the right time and getting the right kind of input. (Right as in ‘right for them’, because I think what’s right and what’s wrong can vary greatly for differnet people.) That’s why it frustrates me so when people get labelled ‘beyond hope’ or ‘therapy resistant’. I was labelled ‘therapy resistant’ and ‘unsuitable for therapy’ myself, but it was more a case of the therapists being ‘unsuitable for Lola’ or something.

      • Stefanie Neumann
        Jan 11, 2013 @ 11:39:30

        Hi Lola!

        I hope you were able to relax and replenish, yesterday!

        What you say about recovery exactly blends with my own experience and my observations regarding not just me but also other people dealing with “illnesses”.

        What is right for somebody can vary in a wide range as there are various people and therefore different things may work for them.

        That’s why it is so important to find a councelor (therapist, medical, mentor, teacher, spiritual healer – what ever is part of the path of each person) who is willing to help them finding what works for them and to support them on that path. In my experience that usually is somebody who in some way kind of resonates with who that person really is.

        Regarding “therapy resistance”: I once read a book by Jeffrey E. Young and Janet S. Klosko called “Reinventing Your Life” – it is a book about breaking free from negative life patterns and inventing healthy habits for oneself. In the intro they are writing about how they could not accept that people were labeled as “therapy resistant” and felt like these lables happend just because the therapy methods at that time had been so dogmatic and refused to blend in cases where this may had been helpful. So they decided to find out how you can blend/ bridge existing methods (and I assume that applies for new methods, as well) so that everybody could find a helping hand when they need it.
        Just reading that intro already gave me hope that some things are actually changing and not everybody is afraid to look “outside of the box” to understand each other better. 🙂

        • Lola
          Jan 11, 2013 @ 15:25:43

          I agree that people, in order to be effective help on someone’s way, need to “resonate” with that person. I think it’s some kind of relationship thing that needs to work out somehow, that the person who tries to help can tune in with the other person. Best to explain it is probably with my mom for an eyample, because the one thing that effectively prevents our relationship from breaking is that she can tell where I emotionally am, sometimes way better than I can tell, so she can help me make sense of what’s going on and react accordingly because she just somehow “gets it”. It’s hard to explain, really. Maybe that’s what resonating is. Or maybe it’s something else, I don’t know. 😛

          Ugh, and don’t get me started on dogmatic therapy methods. I really dislike people (therapists, in this case) who think they are SO knowledgeable and have THE one and only way to go. I mean I kind of get that if their therapy method gave them a hammer, they’d like everything to be nails, but… really… what about the rest of the toolbox? If I know one thing then it’s that life is more complicated than being a bunch of nails and, like you say, sometimes outside the box is where the next step lies, not within the narrow window dogmas leave open. And that doesn’t mean that the stuff the dogma is about can’t be valuable, too, just like a hammer can sure be valuable. If what you are dealing with is actually a nail. But as soon as you have a screw loose . . . (hahaha! 😀 )

          • Stefanie Neumann
            Jan 11, 2013 @ 17:02:59

            Hee hee! 😀

            Re resonating and knowing where the other one is at:

            It seems to me, sometimes it is just easier to see more clearly from the outside. – Like, when I am in a maze I might find it hard to get out because I cannot see the whole picture. Somebody walking on top of the maze’s walls – on the other hand – can see much clearer how I may get out. – Yet, when there is no resonance between the two of us, neither the person on the wall can help me to find the way out nor can I help this person to bridge the gaps between the walls.
            (Hope that makes sense.)

            Re dogmatic therapy:

            I hear you and I like your comparison with the hammer being just one part of the tool box!

            • Lola
              Jan 11, 2013 @ 18:03:00

              Yes, what you wrote makes sense to me. It can be really hard to see what’s going on while I’m in the middle of it. But just the same I wouldn’t just have anyone call directions at me while I’m in the crap-maze of my mental health issues, but only someone like my mom who I trust and connect with, because I feel like she actually sees where I am and where I want to go and that I can go by the feedback she gives me.

            • Stefanie Neumann
              Jan 11, 2013 @ 19:06:50


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