What I Wish People Understood About Mental Illness

by Jorrie Varney
Originally Published: 
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I wish more people understood mental illness.

I’ve been a mental health nurse for 8 years, and I can tell you with great certainty that you know someone with a mental illness, whether you are aware of it or not. We all know someone, because one out of every five people has a mental health diagnosis. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your best friend, or your brother. Maybe it’s someone you work with, or someone you would never suspect.

Either way, mental illness is a part of your life, whether you realize it or not.

I understand the trepidation on the topic, because mental illness can be scary. But so is cancer. Neither patient asked for their diagnosis. No one wants to be sick, or alone, or ostracized because of their illness. Everyone deserves the same attention, love, and support.

I was 26 years old, a nursing student, the first time I walked onto an inpatient psychiatric unit. I planned to work in pediatrics after graduation and was just hoping my mental health rotation would go by quickly. I never expected to fall in love with mental health care, but here I am nearly a decade later. I quickly realized that society’s perception of mental health was all wrong—my perception was all wrong—and I’ve devoted my career to helping others see what I saw on that very first day.

I saw people who laughed with their friends and loved their families fiercely. People who got up each morning and chased toddlers into a pair of pants. People who attended birthday parties on the weekend, and happy hour with friends on Tuesday night. People who busted their ass for a promotion at work, and binge-watched Netflix each night before bed. People just like me.

The stigma that surrounds mental illness has created a gross misrepresentation of those affected by mental health disorders. Due to a lack of understanding, most people associate mental illness with “craziness.” They assume if someone has a mental illness they will parade around waving their arms wildly, spewing nonsense, or exhibiting unusual behavior. The idea that these symptoms represent mental illness as a whole is why such a devastating stigma exists today.

The fact of the matter is, the majority of people who struggle with mental illness carry the weight of their diagnosis silently. You would never know unless they told you. Just like physical illness, there are varying degrees of severity, and numerous diseases and disorders. Not all mental illness is created equally. People with mental illness have good days, and they have bad days, but most of them hide it from the world.

I know this because I’ve taken care of patient after patient who has a life just like mine—just like yours. I’ve seen them at their worst—when they’ve put on a brave face for so long that the weight has become unbearable. They come in broken, discouraged, and sometimes hopeless. They tell me about their struggles, and their fears. They worry that they aren’t the best parent they could be, the best partner, or the best friend. Their emotions are real, and their worries are valid, just like yours and mine.

Some of them are guarded, afraid of what others might think, because they know the stigma all too well. They don’t want their boss to think they can’t do their job, they don’t want their friends to think they’re “crazy,” and they don’t want the world to ostracize them. Stigma is often the greatest barrier to someone seeking treatment, so they suffer in silence. I see this every day—good people, who need help, but worry what others will think.

The stigma has to stop. The world needs to understand, that depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and so many other mental health disorders don’t define a person. It doesn’t render them incapable or limit their reach. They are people like you and I, just trying to be the best person they can be. They aren’t crazy, and they aren’t weird. They are just people. Though their stories are different, and their struggles may vary, I’ve heard so many of them say the same thing, “I wish more people understood mental illness.”

If you or anyone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is help available, and you are not alone. Contact the National Crisis Line anytime day or night. 1-800-273-8255

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