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How to Understand Mental Illness

3 steps toward understanding another person’s experience of a mental disorder.

Key points

  • Many depictions of mental illness in Hollywood are inaccurate. To understand it requires some effort.
  • Understanding mental illness first requires seeing how the symptoms differ from the typical human experience.
  • Mental illness cannot be understood until it's seen from a personal perspective as well as a technical one.
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Seeing what's out there.
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It is not easy to know the experience of another person. This is especially so when their experience is of a different sort than anything you have known. Mostly, we compare like to like. Your friend has a bad cold, a broken bone, or a messy break-up. We’ve all had instances of these. But clinical mental disorders are in a different class altogether. How can we know what this is like? This may seem like an academic question, but it becomes important when the sufferer is someone you care about.

If you wanted to learn what mental illness is like, the task might not seem difficult. Just watch one of many shows or movies on TV these days and you’ll find a character with bipolar disorder, OCD, anxiety, or psychosis. Then, just watch and learn. Interestingly, they will be solving murders, preventing terror attacks, seeing the future, or being evil masterminds.

It should be relatively obvious that these are not accurate depictions of mental illness. So, what’s wrong here? First, mental illness makes it hard to do the regular things in life that need to be done. This may vary from minor impairment to complete incapacitation. Doing extraordinary things or having special powers is not part of the picture.

Second, it is important to add that mental illness doesn’t merely get in your way; it also hurts. You have actual mental pain and do not feel well. Again, this varies from modest to intolerable.

And last, it makes it very hard to see the way back. Once you become ill, you look around and see only obstacles to getting better. There are walls and darkness, not a way out. This is part of mental illness, not a negative attitude.

So, we’ve taken the first step. We’ve gotten as far as correcting the Hollywood image of mental disorders, but this is not enough. How do you learn what having a mental disorder is really like?

Well, there are three steps to take toward the understanding you want. The steps are not complex, but they require some work. If someone you care about has a mental disorder, or you are just being a good person and wish to learn about one of the most important issues in human health, you will feel good that you’ve done this project. You will know about something essential about conditions that 1 in 5 people suffer from. It is well worth the effort.

Step 1: What Are the Symptoms?

The first step is education. Hear what the experts have to say. Do research online and learn about the illnesses themselves.

You'll be able to find lists of conditions, symptoms, and discussions to follow. These lists are neither arbitrary nor the result of anyone’s decision. They are the product of much research and are very valuable to those of us who treat these problems. As you will see below, they are not all there is to any specific disorder. But they are the framework upon which all other differences must hang. Without these basics, you cannot move on to an actual individual’s experience.

The most important take-home point from these lists is how they differ from normal, human experience. The most important difference is that people with the illness in question have a group of symptoms; not just one or two. And very importantly, the symptoms last. The criteria may say two weeks or a month, but usually, they have been around for many weeks or months. Five or six of these symptoms, for weeks, is a world apart from one or two, for days. Research shows that it is fundamentally different from normal experience. In fact, it changes your life.

A second, more obvious difference includes experiences that people do not normally have. This includes bizarre and frightening thoughts, unusual concerns, and sensory experiences, such as hearing voices when no one is present. Although based on things we know, such as feelings, thoughts, and voices, they are otherwise fundamentally different from what people recognize from their own lives.

Step 2: What’s It Like Personally?

The second step is to move away from this more technical discussion. Here you must explore what it’s like from a personal perspective to have the disorder you are interested in. Luckily, many people have written accounts, or memoirs, of their experience. These are not meant to be scientific reports. Just the opposite, they are intended to give deeply personal narratives of the experience. This is rarely just a report of their symptoms. It may include: how they discovered what was wrong, how others responded, how (or if) they got treatment, how their treaters acted towards them, etc. Why all this instead of just symptoms? Because a mental disorder is both a highly personal, and a social experience. If you do not see this, you will not see mental illness.

Step 3: What If It Were You?

The final step takes the least amount of work but is in fact the hardest. Here, you put all the books down and think. You think about what it would be like if this happened to you. You imagine having the symptoms; how would they feel? How they would affect your regular life? Maybe you’d have to stop working for a while. How would this affect your career? Could you fulfill your obligations to your family? How would people you love react? Would your whole life fall apart?

And what is it like to have these unusual feelings and thoughts that you cannot control? Is it still you? How much mental pain can you tolerate? Would you be afraid of losing your mind? Would you think of suicide?

I say this part is the hardest because you cannot know the answers to most of these questions. That is perfectly normal. You may know some from your affected loved one, but most of the answers are beyond most of us. They are beyond us because we have not experienced the condition and because they are just plain frightening. So just do the best you can for this last part. Once you’ve begun it will stay with you. At some point, you’ll hear something from someone with a mental disorder and you’ll think, “that’s just what I wondered about.” By trying to think about these questions you ready yourself for when they appear in your life.

Yes, it takes a small amount of work. But when you’ve done it, you are not only closer to the people you care about, but to a large part of humanity.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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