Bipolar blogger Natasha Tracy offers exclusive insight into the world of bipolar disorder.See all posts »
Helping Others Understand Invisible Illnesses
Serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder are typically invisible illnesses. You cannot tell just by looking at someone that they have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or another mental illness.
In fact, sometimes you can even look at a person’s life, their job, their family and still not be able to tell that they are battling a dangerous illness.
So one of the things people with bipolar and other disorders hear is, “but you don’t look sick.”
People make the mistake of thinking that because a person with bipolar’s hair isn’t falling out or because they don’t look gaunt or seem weak, their illness must not be severe, or even real.
These impressions, however, are false.
You’re Not Sick!
Part of the reason why our loved ones have a hard time accepting our illnesses is simply because they don’t want to believe that we’re sick. The fact that they can’t see the illness just feeds into this desire.
And this desire is normal. If you love someone, you don’t want to believe he or she is ill.
But You Don’t Look Sick
And our society is used to seeing illnesses. When you break your leg, there is a cast. When you get surgery, there is a scar. When you get chicken pox, there are little, red marks. When none of these signs are present, it’s hard for people to accept that the illness is real.
People Can’t Separate Themselves from Their Brains
And while people may understand a malfunction of another organ like in kidney failure, or pancreatitis, they may still have a hard time understanding how something can be wrong with the brain—which is simply another organ.
This is likely because people associate their brain with who they are, as a person, and they don’t understand how that can be broken.
How can your way of thinking be broken? It makes no sense if you haven’t experienced it.
Explaining the Invisible Illness
I think the key to helping other people understand bipolar disorder is to communicate effectively about the illness and its effects. What you choose to share is up to you, but I like to say something like:
“Bipolar disorder is a brain illness. We know this because we can see it in scans. There are pieces of my brain that are actually smaller than pieces of yours. Bipolar disorder is also genetic. If you have a parent with bipolar disorder you have a more than 50 percent chance of having a serious mental illness. Bipolar disorder is not about mood swings. Bipolar disorder is about serious mood states that are far below and far above anything the average person experiences.”
This type of explanation provides some detail and puts the disease into a medical context. I also recommend talking about some of the ways the disease has affected you personally.
Because we know that mental illness like bipolar disorder is real. We know it really affects us and it really causes suffering. And other people can understand that, but only if we take the time to educate them.
Remember, we weren’t always educated about mental illness either and we might have had the same thoughts once upon a time. So instead of feeling frustrated that others don’t see our illnesses we can look at the situation as an educational opportunity. Because people do want to understand, we just have to help them do it.