Can You Understand Someone With a Mental Illness?

April 5, 2012 Natalie Jeanne Champagne

Can you understand someone with a mental illness? Yes, but maybe not how you think. Trying to understand those who struggle is important to their recovery.

Loved ones of those with a mental illness want to understand and help however they can. And I assume those who read my blog are not just those who are diagnosed and living with a mental illness, but also people who are trying to understand the complexity of mental illness--readers who wonder how they may be able to help a person they love. A person that is struggling. There are ways to help even though you cannot understand someone with a mental illness--not really.

Understanding Mental Illness When You Don't Live with It

understand someone with mental illnessIt is impossible to understand mental illness when you don't live with it. Go ahead and tell me I am incorrect-- that's your opinion and you are welcome to it. But as a person with a mental illness, I am certain that those who do not live with it can understand what goes on in my head. And I am, if nothing else, grateful they cannot.

On the flip-side: If someone I knew, perhaps a friend who suffers from a diagnosis of cancer, I certainly could not tell them I understand exactly what they are going through. I expect we would not be friends for long. But that's not my point. My point? You can work to understand the human part of mental illness.

If We Can't Understand Someone with a Mental Illness, Can We Somehow Help?

Yes, you can help, and it doesn't require a stack of textbooks that need to be highlighted. No, you only need to communicate with the person you love.

It's hard--watching someone you love suffer and being unable to relate to them, to tell them it'll be okay when you have no idea if it will. And neither do they. That is the territory of mental illness and that is part of why it is so frightening for everyone involved.

So, what can you do to help?

  • Listen to them when they are willing to describe how they feel.
  • Do not put yourself in a position of authority unless absolutely necessary. Those struggling with mental illness, not yet stable, need you to be the voice of reason. What does "unless absolutely necessary" mean? If a person becomes a threat to themselves or other people, you may to step in and take appropriate action.
  • Do not alienate them. Do not focus on mental illness. Talk about other things: hobbies, mutual friends, things to look forward to.
  • Remind them that life will not always be so rocky; soon enough it will level out.
  • Share your life experiences: You are not immune to pain, we are all human, and sharing painful experiences helps us relate to one another.

Remember that you need to take care of yourself. In order to help someone you love who is struggling with mental illness, you need to make sure you are well. Mental illness is emotionally draining--for all involved--put yourself first.

APA Reference
Jeanne, N. (2012, April 5). Can You Understand Someone With a Mental Illness?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 29 from

Author: Natalie Jeanne Champagne

Jon Hansen
April, 24 2012 at 7:22 am

I have had the privilege to interview both Maggie Reese (author of Runaway Mind) and Andy Behrman (whose book Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania is slated to become a motion picture in 2013), who have both provided great insights into their struggles with mental illness and more specifically Bipolar Disorder.
What is particularly interesting is an article that Maggie provided in which the doctor - who himself struggles with depression contends that caring fro someone with Bipolar Disorder as opposed to a physical illness such as cancer is more difficult.
His reasons are that with someone who has a physical ailment you are going to usually get appreciation for what you do, while with someone suffering from Bipolar Disorder, not only are your efforts less likely to be appreciated, you will invariably be on the receiving end of a great deal of anger and accusations.
What are your thoughts regarding the doctor's comments?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
April, 24 2012 at 7:58 am

Hi, John
I adore Maggie and Andy. Both books live in my bookshelf! That Doctor was not professional, nor ethical, in saying that. Perhaps it is true, on a case to case basis, but is inappropriate nevertheless. That is really horrendous of him. The lithium gave me a thyroid disorder and I will always recall the endocrinologists remark: "You don't plan to have children do you? With your mental illness?" I was fifteen. I would like to have a little chat with him.:)
Thanks John!

April, 10 2012 at 5:26 am

Great post. Exact thoughts that's been on my mind here lately. All of my family has never been involved in communicating with me about my bipolar, yet they have always talked about me behind my back and offered their words of opinions and advise only to get to mad to when I didn't follow them.
It makes you angry when others think they know how you should do or not do things while they have never been involved with you regarding your mental health.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Natalie Jeanne Champagne
April, 10 2012 at 10:52 am

Hi, Lupe
Glad you could relate to my post! It's a frusterating process, lack of communication, but part of the diagnosis sometimes. If your lucky, you have a perfect family dynamic. This rare:)
Thanks for the comment,

Leave a reply