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Mental Illness Is Not Always Flashy

marilynmonroesadHow many times has someone told you there’s nothing wrong with you?

A lot, right? I’m sure they thought it would make you feel better. But it doesn’t. It just goes to show that if people with mental disorders aren’t 100% obvious to everyone all the time, we don’t exist.

Now, this does make some sense. It’s easier to exaggerate mental illness than physical. But for those of us who really do have trouble, telling us to muscle through it is anything but liberating.

We’re slowly becoming more aware of mental disorders as a society. But we still have a long way to go. People aren’t comfortable with invisible illnesses right now you guys. They don’t want to work their asses off only to watch special treatment going to people who don’t clearly deserve it. I know it’s unintentional on their part. But the truth is, people want to see us suffer. That way they’ll know we’re real.

People with mental illness are always having to prove ourselves. When society isn’t calling us a bunch of undisciplined millennials, they call us dangerous. They see the people who shoot up schools. Or ex-lovers who live in their cars outside your building for a month, wild-eyed and taking any drug they can find. Mental illness is something unpredictable that must be contained. Yes, it can make you dance with the more dangerous parts of psychosis. But most of us aren’t violent at all. Treating mental illness as a bogeyman stops us from looking at the sufferer as an actual person. It’s unlikely to lead to developing more cost-effective, low-side-effect medications.

Worst of all, people look at mental illness as comedy. Especially when the sufferer is a woman. They’ll say in hushed, excited tones “Look, that crazy bitch is throwing plates around! Wonder what else she’ll do?”

We don’t just have to prove that we’re real. We have to prove that we’re worthy.

The reality, though, is that most mental illness you can’t see. We aren’t out in the world as much as healthy people. Think about it.

Anxiety makes you too scared to do things because you can only see the worst possible outcome. Depression makes you feel like there’s no point doing them at all.

Bipolar is glamorized. But in its depressive phases it’ll leave you bedridden. And in its manic phases people are going to stay the hell away from you.

Autism makes it difficult to sustain work or friendships. A lot of us can barely leave the house. People with high-functioning autism do the best we can to disguise it. But our quirks build up. We’ll appear lazy and rude and strange in a way that’s so subtle you’re sure it’s deliberate. You’ll avoid us, and we’ll take it out on ourselves.

Schizophrenia is seen as a wild ride into hell. And it can be. But many sufferers lack the motivation to do anything. They’re withdrawn. They might try to stop an imagined catastrophe once in a while, but if you’re that scared of the world you’ll spend a lot of your time just wanting to hide.

Mental illness is not some evil metaphysical thing, resplendent with demons and bad voodoo energy. Those who love us will notice our lack of vitality first. If you have a child or a partner or a friend who’s withdrawn, start paying more attention to them. Even though they’re asking for less. The times we don’t ask for help are the times we need it most.

We also have to remember that mental illness triggers other problems. Most people don’t see addiction as a mental illness. Even though it’s classified as one. An anger problem might be one too. I know it’s problematic to let us write off a real asshole as “mentally ill.” But he might be. Not that that’s his only problem.

We know a lot of homeless people are mentally ill. But we don’t stop to think about it. We see guys sleeping in doorways: stains on their pants and their faces; their blank eyes looking nowhere. That’s someone’s husband or son. He didn’t get help. But he needs it.

We shouldn’t have to fight for mental illness to get attention. But we do. Mental illness eats you alive from the inside out. It’s there before you lose your job or your family. It’s there long before the first suicide attempt. You can fight it. But it’s always waiting to resurface.

We shouldn’t think of mental illness as a disability like missing an arm. It’s more like a dangerous but suppressible cancer, that spreads slowly.

Mental Illness Is Not Always Flashy

Gwendolyn Kansen

Gwen Kansen is a mental health writer in New York. She likes food, karaoke, and smart-but-campy books & TV. She's hoping to capture a little sliver of life on here that might not be the first thing you'd see.

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APA Reference
Kansen, G. (2016). Mental Illness Is Not Always Flashy. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 May 2016
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