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Mental Illness, A Failure to Understand

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

We talk a lot about the fact that mental illness continues to carry a lot of stigma with it. There is no doubt that this is true and is a serious problem. However, there is another, related problem to this and that is the failure of friends and relatives to understand what is happening to their loved one.


She is a young woman and neighbor at my summer address. For our purposes I will refer to her as “Max.” One morning, in the relaxed casual talk between neighbors, she began talking about some of her problems, the major one of which was that she was diagnosed with rapid cycling Bipolar II Disorder. This was not as strange as it might seem because she was aware of my profession in mental health. Upset about her family, complained that neither her husband or family understand what she really goes through when she is in a episode of mania or depression.

When Max tried to tell them how bad she felt, their response is to say such things as, “You look well, just stop worrying,” or, “You don’t need medication, you are just fine,” or “Everyone goes through these things,” or “There is nothing wrong with you,” or “you complain too much about small things. Max experiences great frustration with this because her family and friends do not seem to hear what she is saying. She gets no sense of validation from them.

Instead of validation, she feels blamed for not doing things right or for burdening them with her problems. At the very least, she does not feel their empathy or support.

Max states that, rather than being given advice, she wishes people could just say that it must be hard for her and that they love her anyway.

Advice is too easily given by well meaning people who believe they are being helpful. In actuality, what most of us want when we are troubled is, metaphorically speaking, “a shoulder to cry on.”

This is the message that Max’s story conveys. Empathy and understanding go a long way for anyone who is emotionally stressed.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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