Things I Wish People Knew About Mental Illness

February 19, 2013 Becky Oberg

I wish people knew mental illness. If they understood mental illness, mental health stigma would disappear. Here's what you need to know about mental illness.

Dr. Otto Wahl of George Mason University once said that knowledge and understanding of severe mental illness would lead to a reduction of the stigma attached to mental illness. Again and again, Wahl writes that speaking out about severe mental illness is key to reducing stigma. So here's what I wish people understood about mental illness.

3 Things I Wish People Knew About Mental Illness

Having a mental illness does not make me incapable, stupid or violent.

1. Having a mental illness does not make me less capable.

In 1998, I became suicidal while a sophomore at Baylor University. To make a long story bearable, the RA (residence assistant) found out and reported it. I was suspended from class and evicted from the dorm pending a psychiatric evaluation and meeting with the dean. I returned to class after an eight-day stay in the psychiatric ward.

At the dean's insistence, I dropped a class. My advanced reporting professor took me off of a couple of different beats. "You know you have a medical reason to take an incomplete in this class," he said. He acted as if he didn't believe me when I said I was fine. "Just know that if you need to take an incomplete, you can take an incomplete."

I earned an A.

While I am unable to hold down a full-time job, I run a successful freelance writing business. Many people are surprised by one or the other. They either don't believe that someone who runs their own business can be disabled, or they don't believe someone who's disabled can run their own business.

It's not unique to me. According to a NMHA survey, only 27 percent of the general public believes that successful treatment exists for schizophrenia, compared to 47 percent of caregivers and 58 percent of people with schizophrenia. Fifty percent of the general population thinks people with depression can hold jobs and 49 percent of the general population thinks people with depression can raise families, but only 14 percent of the general public feels that a person with schizophrenia can do either.

2. Having a mental illness does not make me stupid.

I hate it when people treat me like a child or an idiot. My diagnosis does not make me ignorant. I have a psychiatric diagnosis, yes, but I also have a college education. I didn't get that by being stupid. My illness does not affect my intelligence.

Ask anyone living openly with a mental illness. It seems to be an automatic assumption that we're less intelligent than most, even though mental illness affects the emotions, not the intellect.

3. Having a mental illness does not make me violent.

In the 1999 Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, US Surgeon General David Satcher reports that in the 1950s, about 13 percent of people surveyed considered individuals with psychosis as violent. In the 1990s, that number rose to 31 percent.

Satcher wrote:

Why is stigma so strong despite better public understanding of mental illness? The answer appears to be fear of violence: people with mental illness, especially those with psychosis, are perceived to be more violent in the past. This finding begs yet another question: Are people with mental disorders truly more violent?

Research supports some public concerns, but the overall likelihood of violence is low. The greatest risk of violence is from those who have dual diagnoses, i.e., individuals who have a mental disorder as well as a substance abuse disorder. There is a small elevation in risk of violence from individuals with severe mental disorders (e.g., psychosis) especially if they are non-compliant with their medication.

Yet the risk of violence is much less for a stranger than for a family member or person who is known to the person with mental illness. In fact, there is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder. Because the average person is ill-equipped to judge whether someone who is behaving erratically has any of these disorders, alone or in combination, the natural tendency is to be wary.

So there are three things I wish people knew about mental illness. What do you wish people knew about mental illness?

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2013, February 19). Things I Wish People Knew About Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 21 from

Author: Becky Oberg

January, 28 2014 at 4:14 pm

I feel like people don't necessarily assume I'm unintelligent based on my mental illness, but shrinks DO assume that I'm EMOTIONALLY unintelligent, and that my apparent lack of emotional resourcefulness is the cause of my bpd. Like, they completely throw out the window any idea of biological-based mood disturbances or situational factors affecting my mental health at all.
Take the very fact that the number one thing they recommend is skills training. Skills training is a good idea for many people, but I don't feel that that approach is really complete or comprehensive enough.
Like when you're suffering, mental health professionals automatically go "oh, you need better coping skills" (even if you already have decent enough coping skills and it's your situation that is unbearable) instead of "well, that's a legitimately hard situation you're going through. I can understand why you are upset". As soon they stick the bpd label on you, they automatically assume all suffering is your fault / all suffering you experience is a direct result of your lack of proper coping skills.
As for everyday lay people stigmatizing, I find that the worst area for stigma is romantic relationships. People assume if you have a mental illness that you are inherently incapable of a healthy relationship unless you are "cured" of all symptoms, and that if you are diagnosed with bpd, you are inherently volatile in intimate relationships and that you are either abusive or a "splitter"(very frustrating, especially if this does not match your profile)

Mary Dean
March, 3 2013 at 7:14 am

I wish that people were more insightful and aware of the damage they can do by the words they use and statements they make about mental illness issues. Educated and otherwise sensitive people use derogatory words related to mental illness that would be unacceptable and intolerant if such type of words were used regarding race, gender, religion, sexuality, and other issues. I wish that others understood that the use of such words is bullying behavior and that it promotes the oppression of those with mental illness. I wish that others understood that people do not choose to be mentally ill, regardless of severity and type, and cannot just "get over" anxiety, depression, OCD, and other disorders, and if we hear someone use a demeaning word and accept that behavior, we are passively participating and maintaining the stigma that is embedded in our society.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
March, 5 2013 at 6:09 am

Thank you for sharing. The thoughtless words of some people can cause just as much damage as the symptoms of the illness.

February, 23 2013 at 7:05 pm

Wonderful piece! There's a lot of things I wish people could understand about mental illness. If I had to pick just one though, it would be:
"I wish people would believe me when I tell them I'm not doing this on purpose and I especially am not trying to hurt you by behaving this way!"
Believe me! I'd much rather be at work than so anxious-ridden and agoraphobic that I can't leave my bedroom, let alone my house!

Kathleen Brannon
February, 20 2013 at 12:43 pm

I wish people would understand that having a mental illness does not automatically make you a bad or less effective parent. This goes along with another thing I wish people would understand, which is that having a mental illness does not mean you are unaware of your own illness and incapable of planning around it, managing it, and functioning like anyone else, if in a modified, unusual way. And, for people with mental illness, I wish they would understand that these attitudes are inaccurate and hurtful instead of internalizing them and stigmatizing themselves.

February, 19 2013 at 6:58 am

Well said!!!

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