Why Can’t People Accept the Evidence of Mental Illness?

December 10, 2013 Natasha Tracy

I have a question: why is it that some people can’t accept the evidence of mental illness? I mean, it’s not like we’re basing our knowledge on one or two studies – we’re basing our knowledge of mental illness on study after study after study. First there were observational studies, then familial ones, then genetic and then brain-mapping ones. It’s not a tiny amount of data we have here, there’s oodles of it. And yet, people are prepared to say that all the science is flawed and that mental illness doesn’t exist or that the effects of mental illness aren’t real? I just don’t get it.

Scientific Evidence of Mental Illness

I don’t have time to go through all the evidence of mental illness, but here’s an article I wrote on the biological evidence of depression. And if you’re interested in more evidence on the existence of bipolar disorder, see here.

But even if we had no scientific evidence, we would have observational evidence. In fact, this evidence dates back to the first century AD where a relationship between a depressed mood and a manic mood became apparent. There is a long history of the description of this illness throughout history.

Even though evidence for mental illness and bipolar disorder abounds, many people refuse to accept the evidence of mental illness. Why?Moreover, we have observational evidence in families. For example, if your parent has bipolar disorder, you have a 50% chance of having a serious mental illness. Does that strike anyone as a coincidence?

And while it’s clear that mental illness isn’t purely biological (if it were, then if one identical twin had it then the other would, de facto, have it as well, and this is not the case) it is clear that is exists and it is largely biological.

So why is all this evidence so hard for some people to believe?

Denying the Effects of Bipolar Disorder

And even those that admit there is a “symptom pattern” that others would term bipolar disorder, they refuse to label this as a disease. Well, a disease is a non-average state that causes harm to the carrier. Um, bipolar is exactly that.

(If you happen to be a person that considers your bipolar a gift, lucky you, but you’re in the tiny minority.)

And bipolar causes things like cognitive deficits – something else that people like to deny. Examples of this are problems with sustained attention, processing speed, memory and executive function. (Are some of those worsened with medication? Well, sometimes medication has a positive effect and sometimes medication has a negative effect on cognitive deficits.)

Vehement Bipolar Denial

And so, with all this evidence about bipolar disorder and its effects – why do people deny it and why do people get so mad at me for not denying it? (I mean, seriously. I’m just telling you what the science is, if you don’t like that then go and yell at the scientists.) It’s like people are mad at me for saying the Earth is round. Um, if you want to believe the Earth is flat, that’s your business, but I’ll side with logic and science, thanks.

Anyway, if you’d like to slam me for siding with science, now is your chance to do so. On the other hand, if you’d like to posit a suggestion for why people behave this way, you’re welcome to do that as well. Have at it kids.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2013, December 10). Why Can’t People Accept the Evidence of Mental Illness?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

Lian Sandoval
March, 3 2018 at 12:20 pm

Please make an article about the dilemma of disclosing Mental Illness at work and the trouble that comes with it.

January, 6 2014 at 9:28 am

People who deny Bipolar Disorder are ignorant or stupid. Not very smart sounding, but truthful. Someone very close to me believes that it is an excuse that people make to get time off of work. He has not been informed that I have received this diagnosis. I can't tell him with that crappy attitude. I think whether or not you can see it or not see it on imaging doesn't matter. The experience is what is of concern to the person with the bipolar. The results matter as well. People are going to deny mood disorders as being a "real" disorder. There are people who deny the Holocaust. The best we can do is make others aware of the information available to us, and when someone they know dies due to bipolar, or goes bankrupt or loses their job, etc., maybe they'll try to think outside of their own experience. The idea mental illness doesn't exist is so stupid I can't believe I have spent this long commenting on it.

December, 22 2013 at 10:16 pm

Actually Kerry I hate to say it, but a narcissitic scientist could make a much bigger difference than all the good wishes in the world. Because a scientifically valid treatment means that the treatment is going to actually work.
Medication IS empowering. I have plenty of bipolar friends but at the end of the day the lithium is what stops the suicidal depressions.
I applaud what you are doing with your charity. You might find if there was some scientific research into what you are trying to do there, that you could find out objectively which aspects of this were the most helpful, which were useless and which harmful.
There are many treatments out there which have been used for a long time and considered helpful, which fortunately have been discontinued because science has shown them to be harmful.
When it comes to mental illness, which is an emotional topic, our minds can easily be twisted by strong emotions into thinking a course of action or treatment is rational. The scientific process removes this thinking error to show the real situation.

Kerry Martin
December, 22 2013 at 2:22 pm

Our mission at Hope Xchange Nonprofit, for bipolars by bipolars, is to empower our bipolar tribe to help themselves thereby restoring some modicum of hope to the millions of children, teens and adults all around the world who are living without it. The issue of whether there is scientific evidence that satisfies everyone's test of 'yup, that makes common sense and I'm going to believe in that' seems to pale in comparison to the very real issue that our youth are taking their own lives at earlier and earlier ages and are getting diagnosed as bipolar at earlier and earlier ages. After reading the responses, it seems you all are a intelligent and articulate and obviously care, or you wouldn't have taken time to respond. But I ask you, does it really matter if we can scientifically "prove it" when kids are taking their own lives? Does it really matter when so many people are suffering - who cares what the evidence shows or doesn't show? Shouldn't more focus be on helping those who are in need of our care? On restoring hope? On saving lives? On empowering people to help themselves?

Dr Musli Ferati
December, 21 2013 at 9:25 pm

The reasons for dysfunctional performance of mental health service are multiplex one, but burden and miserable background of this medical discipline indicates as principal impediment. In the first place is the lack of scientific evidence, for long time, on brain as organic foundation of mental activity. In fact, the brain remains insidious organ of the body till nowadays. Moreover, it is hard to believe that psychic function, as perception, emotion, memory,thinking etc. come of our brain, respectively from our neurones, as elementary functional cell of brain. This void in psychiatry has got long and overcrowded misunderstanding in scientific opinion. Only the last 20 years, neuroscience has discovered a plenty of evidence to specific and miracle secret of brain as headquarters of our mind. To comprehend these scientific discoveries, it ought to make effort each clinical psychiatrist to promote their in concordance with last one neuroscience evidence. On contrary, our attempt to elucidate the darkness on mental pathology will be onle sterile dream, with fatal consequences for numerous psychiatric patients and for community as well.

December, 21 2013 at 2:41 pm

People who have no experience with the illnesses, and who have not personally suffered the illness and the effects on lives, it just reads like a cop out to them. Most people have to experience anything first hand or to close loved ones to then get involved: breast cancer, autism, stoke, heart disease, mental illness. In my humble opinion, this site is doing great work getting information out to the public, has good contributors, and is waging a battle against the very ignorance of which we speak now.

walt stawicki
December, 20 2013 at 11:02 am

venus talks about excuses which really is ehat i wsnted to focus on. " Why deny the disease?" i wont speak of sufferers, but of other deniers. ( you dont have it becsuse they deny it). "excuses" :the lack of guilt. the easy road from being "the capitain of your soul and master of your fate" as it was writ in poetry in the 19th century. greco-roman christianity. free will...our law itself are all impacted and lird will it all stop if everybody has a legitimized "Twinky Defense"?!!!!! so denial for thrm is a fotm of dealing with some cognitive dissonance darkly viewed through cultural filters. they dont know disease but they know excuses... its what they were tought and they are not gonna convert religions now. thats my broad take.

walt stawicki
December, 20 2013 at 10:50 am

(((smartphones hardly are. ))) lacking a gene PTSD IS still physically demonstrable. not perhaps in gross anatomy but in functional patterns. again some nuanse for categories please. brain is physical tissue. mind is Processes in tissue. even mental Trauma have biological consequences. that is not a contoversial view. what us controversial is how the mentsl effects the genetic disposition. resets the expression of genes and sets into a disruptive pattern that persists way too long and too unchangeably. how mood becomes personality ,almost. and again there are revognizable timeline matks that hint at some rules in play. down in the chemicsl feedbacks and accomodations....we csn point to those... but we cant frame PTSD on the wall or make a mugshot. but we can do scientific observation

walt stawicki
December, 20 2013 at 10:35 am

tom be so fun to talk with. i wish youd been better redponding to "csnt see hallucinations" however. in fact we can now peer into the senses wuite a bit. beyond that we can "see" arrousal fear and other biological reactions to the hallucinations...or the beatific reactions in those more rare douls. my simple line is you cant "see" gravity either. people are so prone to category errors. things / processes etc..point at is examples of it...never the "thing" itself. moving along to PTSD causation. you walk around it as if not being orgsnic it csnt be physicsl

December, 20 2013 at 6:47 am

I agree that science in general challenges the world view of some people...especially the science backing Mental Illness. I'm not part of some "illness model", people will think what they want but it is a trivialization imo. I have a straight up illness (one that does not have a hold on me, rather I have a hold on it PRECISELY because I do not "slack off"). It is what it is, folks.
I like the analogy of flat earth vs. round btw - good one!

December, 20 2013 at 5:54 am

I had my mom deny my depression and labelling it as an "attitude problem", I attempted to endure it for years without getting any sort of help because I didn't know what to do. If I had gotten help earlier, I would be a lot better now.

December, 13 2013 at 9:40 am

Evidence... there isn't really much evidence that is not left to interpretation (inheritance? Seems a lot of things are "inherited". Various quirks, temperament...
My problem with the illness model is... if it helps you, and I mean helps to live, not to enable yourself to slack off from life, with "illness" as excuse... then great. On the other hand, I see people often doom themselves with it.
I call myself troubled, because that is my perception. It helps me to deal with the crap, to get by, to thrive.
Overrealiance on science will not get you anywhere. Science is not gonna give you the drive to live, unless you are actually scientist for living. That is where spirituality and philosophy come from. Some people just don't see "science" of their suffering all that important.
Seeing your recent postings, it seems science is not helping you all that much at the moment. It would be actually a *sciency* thing to go and try other untried approaches, instead of hoping trying the same thing will help you this time around.
Science is one component of human happiness and imho not even the most important one. Humanity survived without brain science for a ong time. Science doesn't seem to be making us happier at the moment. 26% of Americans have some emotional trouble (I know you find the term insulting, but I don't like the term "illness" all that much. I don't think suffering needs to be scienticized to be real). Where is the science to help us all? What do we do with the findings? are they any use after all? Aren't we forgetting something being so focused on "science" and brain scans and chemicals?

Tom Cloyd, MS, MA
December, 12 2013 at 2:31 pm

I see NO problem with fun. In fact, if fun's not a part of the picture, what's the point? In that spirit, allow me to say that I can only agree with your words (although heaven only knows what was going on in your mind when you wrote them). :)
A longer, detailed answer to your question about hallucinations and the science of psychopathology and psychotherapy will be the topic of a blog post (oh goody, yes?), but here's a short answer:
Subjective states are the problem with mental illness. Yet we cannot directly observe them. In practice this is not nearly as much of a problem as might be expected, because internal states and objective behaviors (including verbal behavior) are closely enough correlated that we can measure and study the latter as a surrogate for the former, and it works fairly well. This is what we have found out in actual practice.
More on all that in the longer version!

December, 11 2013 at 6:20 pm

I like your answer, so sorry for making fun, but here goes..
Do you observe hallucinations? You can observe someone hallucinating but you can't observe what they are seeing. You can observe their description of what they are seeing, and their reactions to it, but not the hallucination itself. That's part of what makes it an hallucination - nobody else can see it. You can't pass someone's perception around like a microscope.
Real mental illness exists in someone's mind. The observable and replicable parts that are listed in the DSM5 are not the illness itself but the signs of it. This is why something tangible is needed for us.

Tom Cloyd, MS, MA
December, 11 2013 at 10:29 am

Very interesting topic. My first answer to your main question is this: Most people don't think all that much, or all that hard. Dismissing something is a lot easier than working to understand it.
As a therapist, writer, and researcher, I do want to clarify/correct one point: Something isn't "scientific" because you see it through a microscope or in a brain scan. Science is just about careful observation, replicated. If we can replicate the observation, it's fact, and THAT makes it "scientific". It really is that simple. There are lots of ways to observe. We observe owls, so their existence is unquestioned. We can reliably observe mental illness, too, and it deserves the same respect.
Bipolar disorder has the advantage of having a decent change of getting a secure organic etiology. That's cool, but quite unnecessary. We can see it regularly and reliably just fine, without brain scans.
PTSD, while it can and usually (if not always) does show up in the brain as a effect, certainly cannot be traced to an organic cause. We have evidence that vulnerability to PTSD probably exists, but that is not causation. It's just part of the causal equation.
But, you see, at this point in the discussion, I've lost 95% of my readers. "Causal equation?" What in blazes is he talking about? My answer: It's taken me years of hard work to get to the level of understanding I presently have of these things about which I write. If you are lost at this point, it's about you, not me. You have work to do. Do some it, then let's talk.
Meanwhile, you have NO business telling me, and others like me, who live with and work with this stuff every day of our lives, that we haven't a clue what I'm talking about!

December, 10 2013 at 5:21 pm

I find the flat out denial of bipolar to be misguided, naturally. I believe most people who are remotely educated would find that idea a bit ludicrous. I think it's more common to find people who deny their personal illness because they lack the ability to cope with the label. It comes with such stigma, some of which is perpetuated here.
I think it's important to state that everyone carries this burden differently. Some people are affected in ways that others are not. It is a spectrum disorder. I have had the pleasure of conversing with many who do find gifts with this "disease". I am one of those people. I don't deny the existence of bipolar nor my need to address it, but it doesn't impact me negatively anymore. I think I'm much less of a minority than you state. I also have no doubt that in EVERY population, cognitive deficits are found... but you need to qualify this as it relates to bipolar. You can't state (with any veracity) that everyone experiences cognitive deficits.
I've found with treatment, yes medication, that I am able to harness the influx of energy and ideas and translate it into profoundly productive work, and art. My productivity and efficiency are improved by my treatment. I would like to think that I would perform better on an intelligence quotient exam treated, vs. not.
I'm sorry that you're getting any nasty messages. That's not appropriate or warranted obviously. I think it's brave to be able to state your position, and regardless of weather or not your opinion aligns with someone else, respect should always be maintained. I'm glad you are opening up discussions. It's a great thing.

December, 10 2013 at 3:07 pm

Denial is a part of processing grief. Some people get stuck there. People deny being sick. People deny their relatives being sick. They do this all the time.
Then there is the fact that mental illness challenges the world view of many people. This also causes a kind of spiritual grief that people get stuck in.
People are not rational creatures. They use and abuse science for their own purposes.

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