Beneath the Surface: Exploring Mental Illness.

DSCN0356Mental illness, it’s invisible. There are no bandages, no casts, no crutches, no external wounds. How do you know someone is suffering from one? We, the afflicted, talk about feeling bad, talk about our depression and anxiety woes. You, our friends, look at us with bewildered eyes. You think to yourself “This person is all put together, she has makeup on, is dressed well, there are no signs of illness. I don’t understand.”

It’s not easy to explain mental illness to people who don’t have it. You can’t show them anything that is broken, or any flulike symptoms, or anything visible at all.

The key is listening, trying to understand where your mentally ill friend is coming from, what your mentally ill friend feels like, what they are trying to explain to you. And many will not even explain anything, because of the stigma, because they don’t want to appear “crazy” or abnormal.

Yes it’s confusing. I’ve had bipolar disorder since 1985, and sometimes it’s still confusing for me, so don’t anyone beat themselves over this. Basically the only empirical thing you have to gauge mental illness by is behavior. For example, in mania, people talk a lot, have very high energy, don’t sleep much, may have delusions of grandeur, may have a lot of anxiety. In depression, they have no energy, may sleep a lot, or not, are in a downcast mood, hopeless, and may also have a lot of anxiety. Paradoxically, in hypomania (the stage before going into full blown mania), we can actually get a lot accomplished, we are energetic, focused, not over the edge yet. This might be considered the “industrious” phase of bipolar disorder.

So the way your friend is behaving, a departure from their normal self, is a clue to their mental illness. What they are saying and how they’re saying it is as well. Are they being grandiose, talking non stop, switching from subject to subject (flight of ideas,) these are all clues.

In schizophrenia, people can have auditory hallucinations, where they hear voices, that’s definitely a clue, if they tell you, if they are aware that this is happening and admit to it… Yet most of the time, looking at a mentally ill person, you’d never know anything was wrong at all. It’s all below the surface, in their brain. Just like in a sea, where the water looks still and calm but a savage riptide is flowing under the surface.

Signs and signals, feelings and observations, those are clues to understanding mental illness. Just being an observant and understanding friend who listens and tries to comprehend what is being said and shown to them, that my friends is what is needed to understand the illusive nature of mental illness.

6 thoughts on “Beneath the Surface: Exploring Mental Illness.

  1. Over the past year I have been trying to rid myself of the shame and self imposed stigma of mental illness. This is after 40 years of hiding it and pretending that nothing was wrong.

    My family had known of my past problems with depression, but they didn’t know the severity of it or the fact that it had never recovered from it. They also never knew about the psychosis that came with it. Telling them I was hearing voices, experiencing thought insertion and having almost irresistible suicidal urges was very frightening for me. I didn’t even want to admit it to myself doctors. Fortunately, most of them have been very supportive helpful. I have even become involved with NAMI and have received and given support through them. One day I hope to final stop being afraid of anyone finding out about my illness.


    • Do you have bipolar disorder? You’re talking to me so that’s good! It’s not easy to come to terms with these terrible symptoms of mental illness. They can be frightening and confusing. You’re doing really well. I hope you reach your goal of not being afraid of telling anyone about your illness.


      • I had one doctor about 10 years ago say that I have bipolar, but I never really believed it since I had never experienced a manic phase. The diagnosis from my current Doctor is major depression with psychotic features.

        The support group I have been attending is for all types of mental illness. It has been helpful to talk with others who are dealing with hallucinations and other types of psychosis. While the causes may be different, there is much to learn about coping skills that is best learned from someone who has been there. It is also so helpful to just be able to talk about it with people who are not going to judge, or react negatively.

        Thanks for the support, I really appreciate it.


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