People Overestimate How Much Willpower Helps Mental Illness

February 12, 2018 Natasha Tracy

Helping mental illness requires more than willpower. While most people think willpower should help, or even cure, mental illness, this just isn't true. Read on.I am a person with extreme willpower and this helps my mental illness. I know this. It’s obvious. Willpower affects every aspect of my life, of course. But people may think I have no willpower because of my mental illness. This is because people overestimate how much willpower can help a mental illness.

I Have Willpower and a Mental Illness

I have willpower. Seriously, not everyone could will themselves to do the things that I have done throughout my life. I used willpower to get myself through university, with a mental illness. I used willpower to become a skydiver, with a mental illness. And I willed myself to survive at a cutthroat, major software company, with a mental illness. These are things people usually respect. These are major accomplishments that my mental illness would have thwarted if it weren’t for my willpower.

So just because I have a mental illness, doesn’t mean I don’t have willpower. I’m overflowing with the stuff.

Willpower Helps Mental Illness

And, of course, willpower is critical in living with a mental illness.

My willpower also affects my mental illness when I get out of bed in the morning, choose to eat healthy food or take a shower.

These are accomplishments people without mental illness usually don’t respect. It’s only people who are sick that understand the accomplishment that is completing a day.

Clearly, if I didn’t have willpower, living with this mental illness, holding down a job with this mental illness, living on my own with my mental illness, wouldn’t be possible.

There Is Only So Much Help Willpower Can Offer a Mental Illness

But here’s the thing, no matter how much willpower I possess, I cannot will the bipolar disorder away. People think I can. People think if I were just stronger, I wouldn’t be sick. People think if I just had more willpower, I wouldn’t need to rest in the afternoons. People think that more willpower would cure mental illness.

This is the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” fallacy at work. It’s people blaming patients. It’s people not believing mental illness. It’s people not understanding that what we have are diseases of the brain. And no, no amount of willpower can just magically change a brain willy-nilly. There are absolute limits as to what willpower can do, and they differ for everyone.

Why Do People Overestimate Willpower’s Place in Mental Illness?

This is actually quite simple. People like to think they have control. People like to think they have control over their mental health. People like to think their will is keeping them free from illness. People like to feel like mental illness can’t touch them because of their “superior” willpower.

It’s like people who think that a paleo diet will save them from getting cancer. Is a paleo diet healthy? I have no idea, I’m not a dietician, but I do know that strict eating of any type will not save you from possibly getting cancer. Things can raise and lower your risk of cancer, but, still, anyone can get it. Cancer does not discriminate.

And just like a certain diet doesn’t prevent, or cure for that matter, cancer, nor does willpower prevent or cure mental illness. Yes, I know you would like to believe that if you had a mental illness it would be different because you’re so much stronger than everyone else. But it wouldn’t be, you would be as powerless as the rest of us hit with a brain illness we didn’t ask for.

I’m not saying willpower isn’t important – of course it is. But we need to remind ourselves, and sometimes others, that it doesn’t solve all problems. A strong will might keep some people from eating a bag of chips, but thinking it can cure your brain or overcome mental illness symptoms is nonsense.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2018, February 12). People Overestimate How Much Willpower Helps Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 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.

Thandeka Khanyile
October, 1 2021 at 7:02 pm

Thanks for this article. It's making me understand my daughter's condition.

KYle Brandtjen
April, 27 2018 at 2:51 pm

This is true for truly crazy Bipolar folkd but I have such a minor case I don't need the medicine... But because of the stereotype my parents tried to force me to take it... but I simply spit it out in the abusers faces. I must say it really sucks to want your parents to die in a fire :(

Lizanne Corbit
February, 12 2018 at 4:06 pm

Wonderful read. This is a very important concept to discuss, and you make a key point - "People like to feel like mental illness can’t touch them because of their “superior” willpower." Willpower is certainly one of those tricky little things that people like to put a lot of weight on but they don't necessarily understand the real impact of it. Getting through a day, eating healthy foods, taking a shower can all be big successes.

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