When Loved Ones Don't Believe in Mental Illness: What to Do
Sometimes our loved ones don't believe in mental illness. This is a sad, but all-too-common, situation. When anyone gets sick, with any illness, we look to our spouse, friends, family and other loved ones to support us. We need them in these tough times. This is normal. But what if your loved ones aren't there for you because your loved ones don't believe in mental illness? Here are some suggestions for what you can do if this happens to you.
Why Wouldn't a Loved One Believe in Mental Illness?
There are many reasons why a person might not believe in mental illness: that person may be a card-carrying member of an antipsychiatry group, it may be related to a religion, it may be cultural or it may be the individual's personal beliefs based on nothing more than his or her gut. No matter why, though, you have a problem.
In some respects, the reason the person doesn't believe in mental illness affects how you approach that person. In other ways though, it really all comes down to the same thing: education. Anyone who doesn't believe in mental illness is ignorant. It is our job, then, to educate.
How to Educate Someone Who Doesn't Believe in Mental Illness
The first thing we can do when dealing with loved ones who don't believe in mental illness is to educate ourselves. This is so that we truly know the facts and even some of the history around mental illness. Knowledge truly is power and this education gives us the power to battle back ignorance with facts. For many people, facts can make for a much more convincing argument than us simply trying to express ourselves.
Next, we need to consider how we choose to educate our loved ones about mental illness. Likely, just spouting facts at random times is not going to be very effective. I have found that sitting down with someone in a calm, unemotional environment, using a time dedicated to having a discussion, is best. So, perhaps you can say, "I realize we've been disagreeing on the subject of mental illness. I would like to discuss that today. What time would be good for you?"
Then, you'll want to map out what you want to say to your friend, spouse, family member or other loved one who doesn't believe in mental illness. Some points you might consider making (in your own words) include:
- While I know we have some disagreement on this subject, I need for you to listen to me today. Your openness to what I'm going to say is very important.
- Did you know that since the beginning of medical records, mental illness and bipolar disorder, specifically, has been documented? It wasn't called bipolar disorder, but an illness with its symptoms has always been recorded.
- While you might not know anyone else with bipolar disorder, it is actually relatively common. Bipolar disorder actually occurs in about 2 percent of the American population and it's been found throughout the world. It occurs in every country and every culture.1
- Having a mental illness doesn't mean I'm crazy. Mental illnesses are illnesses of the brain. Just like your kidneys or liver can get sick, so can your brain.
- The symptoms of bipolar disorder are ____ (symptoms of bipolar disorder listed here). My experience of bipolar disorder includes the following symptoms ____.
- I was diagnosed by a doctor with bipolar disorder because of the following ____.
- While bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, it can be successfully managed with treatment. My treatment includes _____.
- Did you know that Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jean-Claude Van-Damme and many other famous people have bipolar disorder?
- While this diagnosis is scary, I know that with your help, I can deal with it and live a successful life.
- It would love it if you would take the time to read a bit about my diagnosis. It can help me and help you. (Note: I tend to think my book is pretty good but you can find other bipolar disorder books here. Websites like HealthyPlace are great for bipolar disorder information too.)
- You can help me through the treatment process by ____.
As you can see, there are quite a few blanks up there, so think about what you want to put in those blanks before you have the conversation with your loved one who doesn't believe in mental illness. I highly, highly, recommend you write down what it is you want to say. It's quite normal to forget everything in the moment. Also, by writing it down, you'll likely be less emotional and that can help get your message across too.
Other Ways to Help a Loved One Who Doesn't Believe in Mental Illness
A letter is another great way of getting your message across to a loved one who doesn't believe in mental illness. The good thing about a letter is that you can give it to the person and then give that person time to digest the information. Sometimes people need a long time to think about things. Make sure you include resources in your letter for the person to continue learning (you can even get the person a book to go with your letter). You can then continue the conversation later.
Finally, sometimes it helps when someone else talks to your loved one who doesn't believe in mental illness. I often recommend people get counseling as a couple or as a family. A good therapist can really help your loved ones better understand you and mental illness and can facilitate quality communication. I know it can be hard to get some loved ones to go, but if you frame it such that it's about improving the relationship on both sides and allowing both of you to talk, sometimes it can work.
What If My Loved One Still Doesn't Believe in Mental Illness After All That?
I'm sorry to say that while conversations, education, letters and therapy work for many people, they don't work for everyone. I'd love to say there was a magic secret to reaching people, but there isn't. Some people absolutely refuse to believe in the very real nature of mental illness.
The only hope I can give you is that sometimes time makes a difference. It took years to get my mother on-side with a medical understanding of bipolar disorder, but she did come around. I can't promise that will happen for your loved one who doesn't believe in mental illness, but I certainly hope it does.
- Soreff, S., Bipolar Disorder. Medscape, Updated May 30, 2019.
Tracy, N. (2019, September 26). When Loved Ones Don't Believe in Mental Illness: What to Do, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, December 6 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2019/9/when-loved-ones-dont-believe-in-mental-illness-what-to-do
Author: Natasha Tracy
Great article. I am wondering of you could help me. I am looking for more comprehensive direction. Do have a book you can recommend? I am looking for this topic, not something general. I was quite astounded to learn my new love believes most people have the symptoms to some level or mental illnesses whether it depression, anxiety, bipolar, add etc... ant some just have more tools and better coping skills so they symptoms don't rise to the level of a diagnosis. Odd thing is she of very high intelligence with multiple higher degrees. Thanks, Michael
Thanks for your comment. I'm sorry, I don't know what to suggest on this particular topic. There is a book about people with mental illness who don't believe they are sick ("I'm Not Sick, I Don't Need Help") but I don't think that's quite what you want.
You may be able to reach her simply with scientific and historical information. For example, something like bipolar disorder has been written about since medical records were first recorded. You may also want to take a look at the differences between bipolar brains and other brains (offsite link, not endorsed by HealthyPlace): https://psycheducation.org/blog/chapter-2-brain-differences-in-bipolar-disorder/
(Sorry, I know that second link has lost its pictures. I'm going to report it to the site and hopefully, they'll fix it.)
I hope that helps.
- Natasa Tracy
Thanks for this article! Another "belief" some people have about severe mental illnesses (bipolar or schizo-affective), for example, is that people who have it are DANGEROUS. Unfortunately, the media often makes this connection.
How did you finally get your mom to come around? I'm 36 yrs old, I was diagnosed with Bipolar when I was 9. For years she was relentless with the medications and the Doctor's. They sold her the idea that if I would just take these antidepressants and go to therapy I would be "normal". They were very wrong, and now here I am an adult, I've spent years researching this disease, educating myself, finding ways to deal with life that suite me. And now my mom tells me that I use it as an excuse, I don't. I'm good for long periods of time, I'm able to play the part of this "normal" daughter well. But sometimes I fail, and while overhearing her call me selfish on the phone because I slept all day due to feeling flu-like. I blew up, my anger got the best of this situation, but during this, she tells me how I'm like my dad and she wants me out of her life just like he is. How I don't care about anyone and then proceeds to say her friend is dying of cancer and she doesn't act like this. Because I slept?!? Well my feelings were hurt, I matched every hateful thing she said to me, I yelled and my temper is explosive, so my anger out did hers. She attacks me for the smallest of things and because I feel like I need to defend myself I do...and then I'm told I'm a psychopath, drug addict( I've been California sober for almost 10 years), manipulator....everything and anything but bipolar. I tried to apologize even though I still feel like she kinda started this one, I'm always willing to say I'm sorry, I'd rather have peace than worry bout who is right or wrong. I'm dealing with a lot of stress and I'm sorry I'll work on it. I tell her I love her. She pushes me away and proceeds to make fun of me with my son and my brother as if that's ok. I know that I've done some terrible things as a result of not being able to control myself when I should have. I spent my entire childhood destroying every ounce of happiness in my home. But I've really tried to rebuild my life and rebuild my relationships and to be the "normal" I'm sopposed to be. But how can I be normal when my own mother seems to go out of her way to put me down and bring the bad out of me.
Sometimes you cannot reason with an unreasonable person. Your mother seems to be irrational: saying she wants you out of her life like your dad; saying you don't have a mental illness & then calling you a psychopath; calling you lazy when you need to rest as you aren't feeling well; etc.
Sometimes we have to face the truth--this person will never be a supportive, positive, helpful, loving person. So do you still want her in your life? Figure out the pros & cons & make a decision as to what is best for you. Realizing you cannot change her will help you to not waste your time & emotions on an impossible task.
Take charge of your life & find a helpful group of people. Like a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Connection support group or DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Alliance) group. You can get help in fashioning a healthy and happy life for yourself.
BTW, NAMI has a wonderful class called "Family to Family" (8-9 weeks, I think) for friends and family members to learn about the various mental illnesses: symptoms, treatment, how to help your loved one to assist in your treatment.
My husband took that class (I have bipolar 1) & said after hearing about the symptoms, "That is my wife!"
I had to "divorce" myself from my father when I was 30 (now 65) due to his hurtful & unsupportive attitude. My life is so much more stable since I made that decision.
I think this is such a comforting read for many to come across. Not only does this read let people who are facing this struggle right now know they are not alone, but you also talk about one of the most important things -- knowledge. Educating ourselves, so that we can more effectively open conversation with others is so beneficial. I love that you offer the suggestion of a letter. I think that can be such a helpful means of communication during times of particular stress or unease. A letter is a great way to ensure you can calmly and clearly get all your points across without getting interrupted or flustered.
Just what I needed.
I wrote it for you and the other commenter on Facebook. I try to help where I can. I hope something here works for you.
- Natasha Tracy