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Understanding Mental Illness Can Be Like Learning a Foreign Language

When you haven’t been around your native language for a while, it can be a relief to be able to hear it and to speak it again. Imagine if you’re trying to communicate in a foreign language and you know the language but you aren’t fluent in it. It could be frustrating trying to find the right words.

The Language of Mental Health

It’s kind of like that with mental health. Not everyone is fluent in the language of mental health. In fact, to some people, it is quite foreign. So foreign that they might not even believe that it is a real language or they may be too afraid to learn it. People can be afraid of what they don’t know. The human brain is wired for craving novelty. Novelty can help our brains to grow with positively wired neural networks, as long as that learning does not become overwhelming. When the brain becomes overwhelmed it can shut down into protective mode.

Helping Others to Understand

When you have mental illness and your support people react in ways which are not helping it may be because they themselves feel overwhelmed. However, the more you are able to understand your emotional reactions and those of others, the more you are able to help yourself feel better. It can be easy to become frustrated with a loved one who is a support person because they just don’t seem to understand. During these times you need to remind yourself that this person is not the person with mental illness. Therefore, they do not speak the language and you must have patience in teaching them how the world looks from your point of view. What may be scary or anxiety-provoking to you may not be the other person’s experience. You have the responsibility first and foremost to take care of yourself. Your next responsibility is to be a teacher to those around you. How can a person learn a new language if they aren’t taught it?

Compassion is Important

I am in recovery from Major Depressive Disorder and there are various members of my extended family who suffer from mental illness as well. And so, when I hear the phrase “What does she have to be depressed about?” from a loved one, after the initial shock of hearing this I need to remind myself to have patience with this person. The person who uttered this phrase has witnessed me go into hospital as if it had a revolving door for my past suicide attempts and suicidal ideations. Yet this person still doesn’t seem to fully understand depression. This leads me to believe that this loved one may be afraid to face the truth of the reality of the new situation. At the basis of every protective reaction is usually some kind of fear. I must hold space for compassion and empathy for this person who does not speak my language in spite of the fact that they have had numerous opportunities to learn.

Having Relief in Therapy

When I return to England or America from Italy, it is a relief to me that most people speak the language which I was born into. Similarly, when I enter my therapist’s office I am able to relax and release any tension, anxieties, and worries. I am relieved of the pressures of the day. I curl up into fetal position on the couch and make a fort of pillows around me which surrounds me like a womb. I can cry, laugh, experience anger, shame, fear, and everything in between without having to have any pretence. Every emotion occurs naturally just as the English language flows from my lips.

Words aren’t Always Necessary

There are times when I need to be silent. Everyone needs silent moments to process, to think, to recover. There are times during which language isn’t necessary. Sometimes nothing needs to be said. Sometimes body language is sufficient to convey what needs to be communicated. This can be in the form of a deep breath, a look away, a roll of the eyes, a soothing stroke on your own hand, a moment of visual connection. The types of things which body language can communicate are endless.

Learning About Emotions is Like Learning a Dialect

Anger has always been a difficult emotion for me to recognise, to access, and to process. For many years I had suppressed my anger. I have also directed it inward and have turned the anger against myself. Whenever I am feeling angry during a psychotherapy session I usually have the urge to take my fist to the couch. Only once I have hit the arm of the couch several times do I understand that I am angry. I like to think of anger as a dialect of a language. I am pretty well-versed in the language of mental health, however, you can only understand the dialect of a region if you are from there or if you have lived there for a while.

Cultural Considerations

My mother grew up as a first-generation American with parents who moved to North America from India. Generational culture, traditions, and ways of being trickle down from parent to child. As a child, there was a general, almost unspoken rule, that I had to be a “good girl.” Being good included not expressing my anger or frustration outwardly. And so, it was suppressed by everyone in my little family of three, and when it did come out it was explosive.

There was never an in-between because we didn’t speak the language of emotions. My mother hadn’t been taught and she had my brother and me when she was young. Therefore, I did not learn how to talk about emotions until I had been in therapy for several years. Now that I have just over ten years of experience as a patient in psychotherapy, I speak the language of emotions. Because it’s not my native language I know there will always be room for improvement.

What’s Important is That You are Communicating

When I am speaking one of my non-native languages I hate sounding like a foreigner. My goal, wish, and desire has always been to sound like a local. At this point in my life, I am slowly beginning to accept that because I have lived in North America for the majority of my life, including some of my formative years, I will always have at least a bit of an American accent when speaking a foreign language. This is like when I try to speak the dialect of anger. I will never be quite fluent in it and I may always sound like a foreigner. What is important is that, whether you speak the dialect or not, you are able to make yourself understood in the language you are speaking. Accents don’t really matter and sometimes they are regarded as “cool.” It can be positive to speak another language, even with an accent because others who speak the language appreciate it.

First You Must Believe in Yourself

There is loads of hope for me and for others who aren’t gifted in languages. I studied hard and managed to learn the language of mental health after years of training. You can do it too! You first need a foundation of believing in yourself and to have a basis of self-worth. From there, the progression of learning comes naturally.

Understanding Mental Illness Can Be Like Learning a Foreign Language

Anjuli Nunn

Anjuli Nunn identifies as a writer and is based out of San Diego, California. She is a mental health advocate. When she is not composing poetry, she likes to study psychology and philosophy. She also enjoys spending time with her mixed breed 12-pound dog named Samuel, whom she rescued in 2017.

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APA Reference
Nunn, A. (2018). Understanding Mental Illness Can Be Like Learning a Foreign Language. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Jun 2018
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