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Explaining Your Mental Illness to Others

Updated on May 6, 2014

A Step by Step Guide to Explaining Mental Illness

Explaining your mental illness to friends and family is one of the hardest tasks to face when you're newly diagnosed. Embarrassment over your illness, not knowing the facts, and being in a rush can all lead to quick, misinformed explanations that leave more questions then answers. This guide is designed to not only simplify the process, but also to let both you and your loved ones walk away still feeling comfortable with each other.

mental illness

n. Any of various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual's normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic, or other factors.

Who's on your A-list?

Figuring out who should know

You don't need to tell everyone. It's best to start slow. Just plan on telling your closest friends and immediate family. And if you have a roommate, they should probably be included. Your coworkers, basketball buddies, and Mommy-n-Me group can wait til later.

My Story

After my husband, John, and I moved to his hometown, I realized I was going to have to tell a few people about having borderline personality disorder. My A-list included his mom, dad, sister, and two of his best friends.

Know Your Facts

You can't explain what you don't know.

Every mental illness has myths attached to it. Everyone knows a bipolar is eventually going to explode and kill someone. And someone with depression actually just feels sorry for himself. And a borderline? Well, we're all just faking it.

It's up to us to debunk these myths. The only way to do that is to know your facts. Check out your local library for books relevant to your illness. Call your local hospital and doctor offices to ask for any pamphlets or fact sheets they might have. And of course, use the web. There's hundreds (more likely thousands) of websites with useful information on them. Just remember, there's no such thing as too much information.

My Story

For 3 years after being diagnosed I had no idea what BPD was. I told people the same thing I was told, "Oh, I just have problems making the correct decisions.". I was soooo wrong. The first time I actually read something about BPD, I cried. Every symptom rang true. It's like it brought my life into focus. I no longer questioned why I am the way I am.

Useful Materials

I would recommend getting a book to keep with you. A beginners guide to your mental illness would probably be best. I would also recommend getting a 'How to cope' book for anyone you live with or spend a lot of time with. For anyone else, an information pamphlet or fact sheet should work.

Handing out reference material isn't necessary, but it helps a lot. A book can answer the questions you can't. And later on it can serve as a reminder to them to be patient with you.

Books for you

Getting a book to help you understand your mental illness can be important. The more you know about your mental condition, the empowered you will be.

These are just a couple of books Amazon has to offer.

Books to help your loved ones

If you live with someone, it might be helpful to get them a book about coping with a loved one who has your mental illness. A good book to choose is one that has plenty of information about your illness, but focuses more on coping mechanisms for your loved ones.

My Story

I had a very hard time getting materials on BPD. I couldn't afford books for everyone. My printer was broke, so internet articles were useless. And the only two places that mailed out BPD info said I lived to far away. I ended up designing my own BPD info pamphlet and an online printshop gave me a great deal to print them up.

A couple suggestions

My best discussions all stemmed from sticking to these general rules.

1. Discuss your illness with each person individually. No groups. Why? Group discussions can get out of hand and off subject.

2. Never schedule a talk ahead of time. Just wait for a time when you know y'all won't be interrupted for a couple hours. Why? Scheduling ahead of time can lead to a big case of the nerves.

3. Don't just sit on the couch and talk. Why? This can lead to long uncomfortable silences. Instead, do something you both enjoy, like walking or baking.

4.Vary the discussions. Why? Each person has a different type of relationship with you and the content of your talk should reflect this.

5. Don't give them information overload. You can always talk again if need be. Why? The more information you give somebody, the less specific recall they'll have.

6. Try to figure out at least one good thing about your illness. I know sometimes it's impossible, but it can't hurt to try. Why? Because finding and holding on to that one good thing can be the one thing that stops you from drowning in self pity.

My story

My mother-in-law and I had our talk while we prepared dinner. My father-in-law and I talked while we shucked corn. Johns best friend and I talked while he was fixing his dirt bike. They all seemed comfortable and we were able to have nice conversations.

My good things about BPD are that most BPD's have above average intelligence and most are creative and artistic.

Something you should know

This won't work for everyone.

Sometimes a mental illness is just too hard to explain. Or maybe you know someone on your A-list is going to be difficult about it. For whatever reason, if you're still having trouble there's one more thing you can do. Schedule an appointment with your doctor and have your important people go with you so the doctor can help explain it. After all, who better to explain than the one who diagnosed you? If you do this, though, you need to make sure to participate fully in the discussion. Remember, the point is not only to educate your loved ones about your mental illness, but also to let them know how it affects you personally.

Photos and text; © 2008-2013 Catherine Taylor. All Rights Reserved

Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

That's all I have for now. I hope I gave you at least one good piece of advice. Please let me know if I helped you at all. All comments are moderated.

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I agree to talk and work is good advice. My friend and I talk and walk, and this is very effective for sharing (problems, ideas, and the countryside)

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Excellent idea to not overwhelm people with too much information at once. I've been explaining my BPD to my-mother-in-law for months, and she gets a little bit more out of it each time. BPD is such a complex disorder to explain to someone who doesn't have it. I believe they can only understand it to a point.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 

      5 years ago from New Zealand

      Sharing your personal story will be so helpful to so many people. Really great information here.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Fantastic lens. I have struggled with explaining my mental illnesses as well!

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 

      6 years ago

      Returned to refresh the angel blessing on this wonderful, heartfelt and important article. I have no problem these days just saying "I'm bipolar and thanks to God and personal effort, willingness to medicate, my mood is stable"

    • familialmediter profile image


      6 years ago

      Your lenses are great! Very informative about mental health conditions and topics that should be discussed and shared with the public. Thank you for the passion you put into your articles.

    • justmelucy profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for having your lens here for me to read.I have been a 20 year battle with myself looking for answers. I haven't been diagnosed with BPD. I have asked and asked for mental health services. I've tried various medicines but I just want to give up. It just seems like a temporary band aid and I'm soon overwhelmed by life again. I want my life back. I am trying to get professional help but have no insurance. I get sent one place put on a list and told to go to another place to try only to have the same revolving problem. I know it may be a lot to ask but you read my lenses on Facing The Future and Living Without. I know you can't diagnose, I just need some one to say they care.

    • TrishaCornelius1 profile image

      Trisha Cornelius 

      6 years ago from Gauteng, South Africa

      Hi, thanks for this lens. For the most part, I haven't explained my mental illness to other people, I've answered questions but I generally just get away with saying that I have generalized anxiety disorder and related depression. There are some amazing tips here, and I think I'm going be fielding some questions in the near future.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I know how hard it can be to share such personal stories. Thank you for your honesty......and for being one of the few to help make people aware.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for such a useful lens. I am very impressed not only by your courage but also by your precise hard work, and practical information and advices which, with no doubt, must be helping a lot of people.


    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Wow. You have some powerful mental health related lenses. Your courage to write about such a personal issue is inspirational. I am a U.S. Army Veteran and suffer from PTSD. I have written numerous mental health related issues as a type of therapy for me. Thanks for your lenses. I will keep checking back for new lenses by you. I hope you were able to work out your marriage issues. My thoughts are with you! Thanks Scott

    • CrossCreations profile image

      Carolan Ross 

      7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I'm impressed at the courage to write about this in such an open and frank manner, very well-done! My ex-husband has BPD and so I have actually read several of the books listed here, but unfortunately he still will not admit to having any such condition and the effect on our sons has not been good.

    • Othercatt profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      @baby-sugar: I wish I could help, but I'm in the same boat. Two days ago I thought I had a great marriage but then my husband asked me for a divorce last night and I've been crying ever since. All I can say is what everyone keeps telling me. Life will go on and if you let yourself, you can be happy again.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Need help

      I've been with my boyfriend ( lover ) for 13 years of love story, everything was great amazing we got along almost on everything, and we were planning to marry in a month ,suddenly after new years eve he said we have to break up and try to find new life , he doesn't have a proper reason - that maybe if we will be married maybe we will divorce, and here my break down start , i don't know what to do , crying all times, try to re-call any reasons discussed with him many issues , he is crying with me but still no its better to leave and we will stay friends for ever and i love you too much

      i don't know what to do , i miss him

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      7 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      This seems like very good advice. It's good to hear what personally worked for you so others can benefit from these tips.

    • waldenthreenet profile image


      7 years ago

      Mental illness is not something for self-diagnosis usually. Community spirit is important for addressing the increasing needs among teens, and elderly and returing GIs who have the higest risk of mental distress leading to self inflicted death sometimes. I have known some tragic cases of young mental distress that could have perhaps been prevented and society benefits in the long run. Let's link c2c to build community spirit necessary for healther communities for mental health support structures.

    • SylviaRolfe profile image


      7 years ago

      Beautiful lens. I used to find it really hard to explain to people why I am the way I am. Eventually I realized it didn't matter what they thought, it simply mattered what I thought of myself and my disorder. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Amazing article. So inspirational.

    • Addy Bell profile image

      Addy Bell 

      7 years ago

      Having "the talk" with loved ones is is a daunting part of life with a mental illness. Your advice will help a lot of folks who need it. *blessed!*

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I love how you encourage letting the the time flow naturally to talk privately with each person. You are making a way for others...well done.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Oh this is such a brave lens :)

    • linhah lm profile image

      Linda Hahn 

      7 years ago from California

      Admitting the problem is a big step on recovery road.

    • ChemKnitsBlog2 profile image


      8 years ago

      Describing your illness (whether mental or physical) to others can be really difficult. Thank you for sharing your story and resources with the rest of us. This will help so many people

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great suggestions, creatively presented -- thanks -- blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for the info.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      When I talk about having BPD, a number of people who know me dismiss this borderline thing as just another manifestation of my unnatural need to find something wrong with me. The truth is that I have been trying to discover what is wrong with me all my life. That search has driven me as crazy as the answers I found.

      My diagnoses progressed from problem child to Drug Addict, to Depression, to Anxiety Disorder, to Bipolar, and now to BPD. (Actually I was told by a medical doctor that I have BPD two years ago, but I put it away in the denial drawer.)

      I just had a professional evaluation a few weeks ago because I had to know if I have this. (I had already diagnosed myself with the DSM IV and research but needed to authenticate it. I was a chemical dependency counselor for many years. I am a pretty good diagnostician.)

      I finally know what is wrong with me and there is treatment for it: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I am looking for work now hoping that I can save enough money to go to treatment. I hope I can start within a year.

    • hotbrain profile image


      8 years ago from Tacoma, WA

      Good suggestions. It is important that we talk about mental illness because it will help in overcoming the stigma. I've lensrolled your lens on my pages about bipolar disorder and depression.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your story in terms that anyone can understand this illness. Coming from a medical background it is nice to see when someone understand and can share with others. What more important is that you can help others with this illness too. It's great to see that this is not holding you back from living a full life.

    • callinsky lm profile image

      callinsky lm 

      8 years ago

      Mental Illness is a hard topic for most people. They just don't understand it. It is wonderful that you have shared this information. Thank you. I am lensrolling it to my two mental illness lenses.

    • mythphile profile image

      Ellen Brundige 

      8 years ago from California

      Thanks so much for this. You have a lot of courage. I wish I were sure enough in myself what the 'official diagnosis' is to be able to have that talk with others.

    • VarietyWriter2 profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for sharing something so personal. Thumbs up and SquidAngel blessings :)

    • The Homeopath profile image

      The Homeopath 

      8 years ago

      Mental illness in your children is often to explain to others as well. My teenage daughter is bi-polar and needs regular meeds. It frustrates me when others don't understand how critical it is for her to not miss doses and such.

    • myneverboredhands profile image


      8 years ago

      Sometimes I get a headache after solving problems or even thinking about something really hard for too long... I just can't imaging how hard is to have the mental illness and survive everyday routines...Be well, and thanks for sharing.

    • VJYoung profile image


      8 years ago

      I think if more people that have experienced severe mental illnesses and successful dealt with it would speak up, it would help demystify the subject. I have attempted to do that for many years. I think speaking to groups can also be helpful.

    • KarenTBTEN profile image


      8 years ago

      This is an important resource. Resources tend to be better when written from experience, as yours is. I featured this on "Struggling to Pass Brain Chemistry".

    • Othercatt profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      @norma-holt: Norma, BPD is a very serious disorder. Here is a great lens that actually takes you into the mind of a BPD.

    • norma-holt profile image


      8 years ago

      What a story but maybe many of us have that and don't know it. How serious is this? *-*Blessed*-* and featured on Sprinkled with Stardust

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 

      8 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Very well presented. Your story will surely help others facing a similar situation. Nicely done!

    • amyrussell profile image


      8 years ago from New England, USA

      This is a wonderful lens! I have bpd and I'm also bipolar. I try to take my meds and go to therapy and my outlet is reading and writing, so thanks for this!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is a very interesting lens. You share a lot of helpful information here. When you get the chance, I'd love it if you'd stop by my lens on bipolar disorder and say hello.

    • thrivingwithill profile image


      10 years ago

      Wonderful site! I loved how you broke it down using the large black squares and it's very helpful information in one place. Hope you will join us in September for National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week. We have a lens here at Blessings, Lisa

    • religions7 profile image


      10 years ago

      Some challenge & great tips on dealing with it. I would like to know how they responded. Did everything go well?

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      What a wonderful lens, your writing is very moving. I hope people others who need to know this information find there way here. You are an inspiration!

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 

      10 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      It's so hard to come out with personal problems but I'm sure your lens is going to help many other people. You are very brave. 5* and lensrolled.

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image


      10 years ago

      A brave lens. I hope you know about DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) which is the best treatment from borderline. It is skill based and teaches skills that most BP don't have, but can get. There are more groups coming all the time, but there are books also.

      Anyway, thanks, this was a good lens. 5*

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I love your candor and pragmatic approach to a very difficult issue! I am so happy you have spoken out on a very misunderstood illness.

      Keep up the great work... we all need to hear more of your wisdom,



      You’ve Been Peeped By a Giant Squid!

    • cappuccino136 profile image


      10 years ago

      Excellent, specific, and practical advice. Your examples from your own experience are the best parts. The lens is well organized and the text is broken up into readable chunks. You can help a lot of people with this lens. Great work!

    • stoetzels lm profile image

      stoetzels lm 

      10 years ago

      Wow....very useful information here....Keep it up!


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