How and Why Mental Illness Is Misunderstood

The brain is incredible, in the true sense of the word. Our whole selves are housed up there in that small mass of cells, nerves, and electricity. Our every sensation, thought, emotion, decision, and feeling are determined by the functioning of that squishy, 3-pound organ behind our eyes.

The brain is complicated and misunderstood. If more people understood the basic tenets of psychology -that we are all the same, and fairly predictable- then we would have a foundation on which to build a societal understanding of mental illness. Instead, people believe that they control every aspect of their own behavior and that others are controlling every aspect of their own behavior as well. This theory only works if everyone is neurotypical. If there were no problem thoughts or behaviors, then it wouldn’t matter that people didn’t know how much of their behavior was not at all their choice. Once you introduce the idea that we are little flesh machines operated by our brains, you must accept that you only have some control over your own thoughts and behavior, not complete control. If those thoughts or behaviors get out of hand, you’re going to need some concrete and specialized help to heal them.

The causes of mental illness are chemical, physical, biological, psychological, hereditary, experiential and psycho-biological, in many combinations. We can treat chemical imbalances. We can also treat people’s thoughts. The problem this causes for the appearance of mental illness is that it seems we should be able to “think ourselves out” of our illness. The intentional, dedicated work done in psychotherapy is precise in its application. Imagine someone telling you “Hey, go to the store and get me that thing for the kitchen” and not telling you anything else. You can go to the store and look at every item without ever finding what the person asked you to get, or even getting close. If you do happen to walk by that one specific thing, you still wouldn’t know to pick it up and bring it home. Thoughts are like that. There are thousands of them, and we do not know which ones to keep, discard or fix until we know what we’re looking for. Professional therapists show us what to pick up, what to repair, and what to discard. Once we know what we’re looking for, we need even more guidance on how to solve or change the problem. Now comes the good news: when we see what we’re looking for and we learn how to fix it, we can start to get some relief from the sheer, unending exhaustion of mental illness. But we can’t get to that point without very specialized help. Talking to your clergyman is not going to heal your mental illness. It may make you feel better, but it’s not the same as professional help. Professional therapists, like licensed counselors of social work, psychologists, and licensed clinical therapists, are highly trained in finding your troubling thoughts and behaviors and helping you put alternative strategies in place. This way, you can use a coping behavior (an action or a different way of thinking) about the problem the next time it arises. Coping behaviors can be actions or thoughts. If any of you need some coping tools today, you can borrow my toolbox.

Mental illness is misunderstood. Many people who are mentally ill themselves have a tenuous grasp on what their diagnosis means, why they take the medication they do, what behaviors make up their symptoms, and so on. We are moving in the direction of better public understanding of what mental illness is and where it comes from. I’m encouraged by the growth I’ve seen in public awareness of various mental illnesses. I created this website to try to continue the trend and spread my own knowledge about mental illness.

If you are mentally ill, look into your diagnosis. Research the symptoms, effects, and prognosis for treatment. Read about your medication. If you know other people with mental illness, research their diagnoses as well. Educate yourself. By doing so, you will be furthering the education of the public on mental health and mental illness. This self-edification is a ripple in the collective pond. Your effort to know yourself can benefit the world.

By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter


My disclaimer:

I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 12 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.

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