Mental Illness – What Part Of Illness, Don’t You Understand?

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I am not a doctor nor am I an expert on mental illness or addiction.  These are only my opinions about the issue of mental illness, addiction and the social stigma associated with them.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a talk by William C. Moyers about addiction and mental illness.  It crystallized many of my ideas and feelings  and it had a call to action.  (I’ve changed it a bit, and I’ve layered my own opinions on top of his points, so if you have arguments with what I’m saying, it’s with me, not him.)

On this Memorial Day, I felt compelled to reach for the keyboard.  Why Memorial Day?  Sadly, many of the heroes that we are celebrating this weekend, our surviving veterans, have a high statistical likelihood to suffer from mental illness and/or addiction.

This is what I believe, stated simply and clearly:

  • Mental illness/addiction is just that, an illness.  Like heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
  • Mental illness/addiction is a physical condition, with a physical cause and physical symptoms.  There is a condition of the brain that is triggered by an event, trauma or chemical reaction and results in a chronic illness.
  • There is no cure for chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, mental illness or addiction.
  • Like every chronic condition, the sufferer must continue lifetime treatment of self-care and if needed, medication.  If you have heart disease you need to care for yourself by eating healthy, exercising, getting sufficient quality sleep, etc.  If you don’t do that perfectly and perhaps even if you do, you need also medication.  Also true for mental illness and addiction.
  • Get help.

Why the somewhat rude headline of this post?  One of the reasons that our suicide statistics are so high, one of the reasons we have so many homeless, one of the reasons that the mentally ill die younger than the general population is because oftentimes mentally ill people don’t receive or continue treatment.  And a major reason they don’t is because of the social stigma associated with mental illness.  As a society, we punish the mentally ill.  If you disclose that you have a mental illness, you are no longer welcome in many situations.  Think about it.  Do you want to hire someone with a mental illness?  Do you want a babysitter with a mental illness?  Do you want a neighbor with a mental illness?  Do you want your daughter to date someone with a mental illness?  Yet at the same time we ask people to admit they have a problem and publicly seek help.  So what needs to change?  Our attitude as a society needs to change and accept people who suffer from mental illness and addiction.

You see that last bullet point, “get help”, and you think, well why not?  Why don’t people get help?  I’m sure there is more than one reason.  But a large reason has to be because as a society we don’t support those who get help.  We don’t support them.  So what can we do to change that?  Reach out to someone who struggles with mental illness and/or addiction and tell them that you support them and their decision to get help.  Tell them you admire them for getting treatment to being in recovery, to having the courage to stand up and say, “I needed help and I got it”.  Someone who hasn’t made that step may hear you and have the courage to do the same.  You might save their life.  Be a hero and help remove the stigma of mental illness and addiction.

For information about mental illness and treatment, there are many sources.  A place to start is


  1. 1
    Michele L says:

    I completely agree with you. What’s sad is many insurance companies don’t cover mental health issues

  2. 3
    Natalie U says:

    So true. Unless you go through having anxiety or depression, no one can truly understand what it is like. I’ve heard so many times ” Get over it, be positive.” If only in was that easy. I’m sure nobody wants to deal with such a debilalating condition by choice.

    • 4

      Well said, Natalie. If only it was that easy. Like Lynn says in a comment below, no one would tell someone with heart disease to “Get over it, be positive.” It’s a journey, and I wish you the all the best on yours. Please never give up. There are more people that support and understand than we realize.

  3. 5

    Thanks so much for this article. I am bipolar & some people joke & it’s not funny! :)

    • 6

      True! If we joked about leukemia no one would laugh. Hugs to you and always remember there are people who understand and support you in the struggle against mental illness. Hugs!

  4. 7
    lisa lo says:

    I already have a neighbor with mental illness. A few of them actually. One got a puppy and totally ignores it. Why do I, the neighbor make sure it get food water and walked? Why? I didn’t want a dog. I am blown away by the callousness of these people.
    The other neighbor pulled shut my drain for the toilet. 2 am I heard it. sounded like a weird animal up under my camper. Well 2 weeks later my place smells like an outhouse. We go out and look and the drain plug is closed. So that’s what the weird noise was. The drain pull out is rusty so the mentally ill neighbor had to strain a little to do this. I never thunk anyone could be up under my camper at 2 in the morning…taking donations to move and I will relocate the puppy to a new caring home too….not jk. Not a day goes by when he doesn’t get out of his truck with a can of open beer in his hand.

  5. 9

    I’m living proof that mental illness can strike anyone. I was an honor student from kindergarten through college and had a thriving career in HIV/AIDS education for over a decade. Although I’d always been prone to periods of depression, I blamed it on being bullied and the general sad state of the world. In my late 20s, my suicidal thoughts became uncontrollable, which made no sense because I was really having one of the best periods of my life. A dark cloud seemed to follow me everywhere, and only alcohol and shopping could make it dissipate for awhile. I’d always been critical of drinking too much, so I guess that and biology kept me from becoming an alcoholic. I’d always been one to pay off my credit cards each month too, but the balance soon rose to over $10,000 so I had to file bankruptcy. A friend insisted I see a psychiatrist and even drove me to the appointment. No doubt she saved my life! I started taking antidepressants and had a brighter outlook within a week or two. Eventually I had trouble coping again, so my dosage was changed and other pills added. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed as bipolar and put on lithium, however, that I truly stabilized and broke free of the highs and lows that had always ruled me. I conquered my shopping addiction, reduced my drinking to once or twice a year, but was unable to keep working because the stress was too much for me to handle. So now I’ve been on disability for several years, and I sometimes feel lazy or like a failure because I was always pretty driven before. But I’ve learned to take it easy on myself, just as a heart patient can’t bear too much excitement. I’ve also learned to shrug off those who don’t understand mental illness or try to convince me I just need to pull myself up by my bootstraps. When you[‘re clinically depressed, you don’t have any bootstraps to pull on. I do wish more people would realize that mental illness comes and goes in many lives, and that even when it’s chronic, it may not pose any danger. People tell me I’m a sweet person with a kind heart, and they don’t seem to be afraid of me. Really the only one I can be a threat to is myself, and I strive every day to treat myself gently and not let petty events overwhelm me. Thanks for publishing this, Kelly, and giving your readers something to pause and reflect about. One of the worst burdens of the mentally ill is feeling we ought to be able to control our emotions and that we’re an unnecessary drain on society. Perhaps we are, but then so are heart patients, paraplegics, diabetics, epileptics, the blind, etc. Human beings have been taking care of the ill since at least Neanderthal times. I wish I could carry my own weight, I never intended to do anything less, but I’m grateful to this country and its people for providing at least some care and support to myself and others like me.

  6. 10

    Thank you for sharing your story, Lynn. It sounds like you’ve been on a long journey but that you’ve found a peaceful place. Thank goodness for your friend who helped you find treatment!! While you may not be “carrying your own weight” financially today, you certainly were contributing financially in the past. And money isn’t everything! Just by sharing your story here, I’m sure you’ve helped someone. Maybe you could find a way to reach out and help others by volunteering at a not-for-profit near you. It wouldn’t have the stress level of a job and you could tailor the schedule to make sure you take care of yourself first. Your story is very inspirational, congratulations, and thank you again for sharing it.

  7. 11
    Mahdi Martin says:

    I think it’s a shame the way society treats the mentally ill. So many people end up homeless or in prison because the facilities simply don’t exist anymore to help them, and when they did, they were worse than prisons. There’s a history of mental illness on both sides of my family, and several close family members of mine struggle every day with it. There have been close calls, and tragedy that seemed unavoidable because of the lack of available resources. I feel powerless to do anything about the fact that history may repeat itself within my family. We’ve all just been through so much these past few years.

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