4 Ways Mentally Ill People Are Blamed For Their Struggles

The first time I told someone that I was mentally ill, they reacted with disbelief.

“You?” they asked. “You don’t seem that sick to me. Be careful not to play the victim.”

The second time I told someone that I was mentally ill, they invalidated me.

“We all get depressed sometimes,” they replied. “You just have to power through it.”

Countless times, I’ve been made to feel like my mental illness is my fault. I wasn’t trying hard enough, I needed to change my perspective, I wasn’t looking at all of my options, I was exaggerating how much pain I was in, I was only looking for sympathy.

If I wasn’t mentally well, they implied, it was obviously an issue with me that had nothing to do with the systems that fail mentally ill people each and every day. My “failure” to live a functional and happy life had nothing to do with the biological, psychological, and sociological factors that contribute to mental health. Instead, it always seemed to circle back to me and an apparent lack of willpower that kept me down.

For a while, this kind of gaslighting – the denial of my struggles that made me question my own reality – had convinced me that my mental illness wasn’t valid or real, and what was intended to be “tough love” from the people around me only made things worse by leading me to blame myself instead of advocating for the kind of treatment I desperately needed.

Like many mentally ill folks, it was impossible for me to move forward in my recovery until I stopped blaming myself and started seeking out the right kind of support. But it can be impossible to do this when the people around you are convinced that you’re doing something wrong.

A culture that routinely traumatizes mentally ill people by interrogating the severity of our illnesses and the sincerity of our efforts – effectively blaming the victim – is a form of psychological violence that keeps us from accessing the care that we need.

And yet it’s the norm in this society. People seem to have a lot of opinions on the choices that mentally ill people are and aren’t making while staying silent about the systems that force us to make less than ideal choices in the first place.

Personally? I believe that any choice made in an effort to survive is not necessarily a “wrong” choice, and if we care about mentally ill people, it’s our job to expand those choices by increasing their efficacy and accessibility rather than punishing mentally ill folks for doing their best to navigate their illnesses in circumstances that will never allow them to thrive.

As a mentally ill person, I have struggled within a culture that compulsively critiques the choices that I’ve made rather than advocating for the availability of better choices. And these critiques leveled against me, perhaps with the intention of motivating me, have ultimately hurt me.

I want to unpack those criticisms. The reality is that they harm not just me, but the millions of people that grapple with these illnesses every day.

And unfortunately, it’s a conversation that is increasingly necessary as support and resources for psychiatrically disabled people are only disappearing under the new administration, fueled in part by these prevalent beliefs about mentally ill people.

Here are four ways mentally ill folks are blamed for what they’re going through and what we can learn from these harmful assumptions.

1. We’re Expected to Pull Ourselves Up By Our Bootstraps

I remember when my old therapist told me, “If your mental illnesses were just an attitude problem, wouldn’t you have changed it by now?”

When I hesitated, she added, “I don’t think you’d make yourself suffer this deeply and this much if the solution were that simple.”

And she was right. I was doing everything that I could. My struggles were not due to a lack of effort on my part. I would’ve done anything if it meant finally getting better.

People who haven’t experienced mental illness personally often buy into the idea that if you try hard enough, mental illness is something you can overcome. With one brushstroke, it’s depicted as a lack of willpower and a personal failing. Myths like this disempower mentally ill people because they take the focus away from creating resources to help us and instead place complete and total responsibility on the person who’s suffering to make solutions appear out of thin air.

But if we could single-handedly ease our suffering, wouldn’t we have already done it? It isn’t fun, and for many of us, it disrupts our lives in significant and even unbearable ways. In fact, it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.

When you place the burden on mentally ill people rather than advocating for a system that supports us, you put our lives in danger. Not only are we less likely to seek out help if we’re expected to go it alone, but legislators won’t think twice about slashing funding if it’s treated as an attitude problem rather than a legitimate public health issue.

No one wins when we abandon mentally ill people.

2. It’s Assumed That Treatments Will Be Accessible, Quick, and Effective

It took me over a decade from when my symptoms first appeared to get the right treatment.

And that bears repeating: over 10 years.

My case is exceptional, too. Most people will take at least ten years just to seek out help for the first time, and many will never receive treatment at all. This gap in care can account for the significant rates of drop-outs, hospitalizations, imprisonment, and homelessness that are a staggering reality for people with mental illness in this country.

It is incorrectly assumed that if you’re struggling with mental illness, a good therapist and a pill or two can easily remedy the situation.

But that’s assuming:

  • The stigma and cultural norms have not discouraged you from seeking out help
  • You have geographically and financially accessible options
  • Treating neurodivergence as an illness is a framework that serves you OR alternatives that resonate with you can be accessed
  • You have adequate insurance OR access to resources designed for folks without it
  • You understand how to navigate these systems and can find what you need
  • You can safely take medications and you respond to the medications prescribed to you
  • You were accurately diagnosed
  • You have the necessary self-insight to recognize your triggers and symptoms and can convey them to a clinician
  • You have the stamina and time to endure years of testing out different treatments to figure out what works
  • You have trusting relationships with the clinicians directing your recovery

…which only happens after you are willing to sit on a waiting list for weeks and even months to see those clinicians in the first place or can seek out crisis services (like the emergency room) sooner.

Does it sound like a lot? That’s because it is. And this isn’t even a complete list by any stretch.

Of course, if you’re multiply-marginalized, forget it. You not only have to wait for a clinician to see you, but you need a culturally competent one that understands the context of your unique struggles.

This is damn near impossible for many of us, as psychiatry as a profession is still dominated by clinicians who hold a lot of privilege and can replicate these hierarchies in their work. Instead of addressing the laundry list of reasons why mentally ill people don’t get treatment, it’s just assumed we’re not trying hard enough or that we don’t want to get better. This is a fallacy designed to prevent us from accessing care and perpetuates a broken system that does not serve us adequately or compassionately.

3. We’re Not Allowed to Feel Discouraged or Defeated

Behind all of the pressure to “keep trying” and all the suggestions that we’re never quite doing “enough” to get better is the implicit message that mentally ill people are not allowed to feel defeated. We’re not allowed to momentarily give up, hang up our gloves and say, “This isn’t working, and I’m tired.”

If we aren’t constantly “on” and working at recovery, it’s suddenly our fault that things aren’t improving. If only we’d just put in the effort, things wouldn’t be this way. Never mind that we’re human beings, and sometimes it’s just too overwhelming or painful to keep going.

A culture that treats mental illness as a lack of effort is a culture that says mentally ill people aren’t allowed to be fully human and vulnerable. It dictates that the effort is our sole and constant responsibility, and that we aren’t allowed moments in which we can grieve, give in, or be afraid.

The expectation that mentally ill folks are doing something wrong if they aren’t constantly in motion is an unrealistic and unfair burden to place on us, especially because the level of dysfunction that mental illness can present can make it nearly impossible to advocate for ourselves in the first place.

Feeling discouraged is valid. Feeling afraid is valid. Feeling exhausted is valid. There is a full spectrum of emotion that comes with recovery, and part of humanizing mentally ill folks requires that we hold the space for those emotions.

Recovery is a discouraging, scary, and exhausting process that can wear down the most resilient among us. This has nothing to do with mentally ill people’s personal failings and everything to do with the fact that these illnesses can be difficult to live with.

If you blame us for not trying harder or trying enough – demonizing those moments when we feel most vulnerable or defeated – what you’re saying is that if we aren’t superhuman and invulnerable, our pain is deserved.

This is untrue. We don’t deserve this. And we certainly didn’t ask for it.

4. We’re Either Too Functional to be Sick or Too Dysfunctional to be Helped

Here’s one of those ways in which mentally ill folks can’t win: we’re either too “functional” by appearances and therefore making excuses for our shortcomings, or we’re too “dysfunctional” and we’re a burden on society that can’t be helped.

Either way, rather than acknowledging the impact mental illness has on us, people tell us that in both scenarios, the problem lies with us.

It personalizes our struggles in a way that is dehumanizing. We’re seen as either dishonest or insane, and in either case it’s our responsibility to deal with it rather than society’s collective responsibility and ethical obligation to set up systems that allow us to heal.

And as with all of the myths we’ve broken down in this article, this is how oppression operates at its most insidious level: by decentering the systemic origins of human suffering and instead placing the responsibility and blame on the individuals who are suffering. If we categorically write off mentally ill people by either invalidating the authenticity of their struggles, or pushing them off to the margins as irredeemably lost, we no longer have to be accountable for what happens when our systems fail them.

Though attitudes like these remain the status quo and might initially seem benign, they create a protective shield that obscures what’s really at play.

It’s ableism, plain and simple.

Victim-blaming folks with mental illness is not just a matter of stigma, though we can easily recognize it as such. It’s also a form of violence; it directly upholds a system that harms the psychiatrically disabled and deflects accountability for that harm.

We can all do better than this, and it starts by putting the blame where it really belongs – not with mentally ill folks who are only trying to survive, but with the systems that fail us, a society that gaslights us, and the violent attitudes that embolden them both.

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PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Unapologetic Feminism.

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An Open Letter To Amanda Lauren From Someone ‘Beyond Help’

Having nearly died by suicide six years ago, I can imagine what people would have said about me. They would’ve talked about my deep depressions, my unpredictable rage, how lost I was.

Maybe, like you, they would’ve said that I was better off dead. Maybe, like you, they would have callously remarked that some people with mental illness can’t be helped.

Here’s a letter for you, Amanda, from someone “beyond help.”

You were right to judge yourself for exploiting Leah’s story, because it’s exactly what you did. You took the life of a mentally ill person and diminished it, deciding to use her struggles for your own personal gain.

Mentally ill people do not exist as entertainment for you. They do not exist as a sensational story to tell. They are not a product for your consumption. We are not property, we are not objects, we are not paychecks for you.

But ethics were never a consideration for you, Amanda.

Let’s look at the facts: You celebrated the death of a mentally ill person. In doing so, you told people everywhere, “Some people with mental illness are better off dead.”

And you believed it, too, it was the crux of your entire essay. You, a self-declared expert on mental health recovery, have decided that some people with mental illness would be doing themselves and the world a favor if they died.

I want to ask you something. What did you think you were offering the world in writing this? What good do you think you were doing? I can’t see the good, but I can see the immense damage and pain that you’ve caused my community and myself.

I can think of a mentally ill teenager that would read your essay and say, “Maybe I can’t make it after all. Maybe I’m not supposed to.”

I can think of a society that already stigmatizes mental illness saying, “See? Sometimes they’re just crazy and there’s nothing to be done.”

I can see relatives of mentally ill people saying, “Just give up already. There’s nothing we can do.”

I can see a police officer pulling the trigger, deciding in a split second, “He’s crazy, that makes him too dangerous.”

Mentally ill people die because of attitudes like yours.

They die because they stop believing in their ability to recover in a society that tells them they can’t. They die because the stigma around their illness – stigma that was rampant in your essay – prevents them from seeking out help or accessing treatment. They die because their support systems abandon them. They die because law enforcement ends their lives.

We are the victims of violence and trauma because we encounter people every day who see us as less than human – people like you, who believe that being crazy is an invitation for tragic mistreatment and even death.

Six years ago, they might have said that I was beyond help. They sure liked to emphasize how severe my disorders were, how dysfunctional I was. Like your “friend” Leah, they might have said that death spared me from a life of institutions and burdening my loved ones.

(Maybe an asshole ex-friend would’ve made a buck at xoJane talking about my life with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. A kid can dream, right?)

But let me explain something to you, Amanda.

I wasn’t beyond help.

And it took six medications, and it took a psychiatric hospitalization, and it took a hell of a lot of support from the people around me (who, no doubt, felt the burden of my illness at times), but I am slowly but surely climbing out of the depths of severe psychosis and depression.

People counted me out for years, thinking that I could never reassemble my life after mental illness had torn it apart. But those people were wrong.

And you were wrong.

You don’t get to decide, Amanda, which of us are “beyond help.” You also don’t get to decide which of us deserve to live. You don’t get to decide who has a chance and who doesn’t.

Leah could’ve had a chance – and while you toss confetti on her grave, I can’t help but think about all the people that would’ve done the same to me prior to my recovery.

It’s easy to take a glance at someone’s suffering and count them out. It is difficult – and it’s called empathy, you should try it sometime – to see that person as a whole human being that is irrevocably worthy of care, validation, and support.

Leah was deserving of that and more, not death – whether or not you believe it, regardless of what your essay says.

There are so many people like Leah in this world, grappling with severe mental illness, who are told that they will not or should not survive. They’re counted out before they’re ever given a chance to live. They’re reduced to their illness and denied their humanity by people like you.

But every mentally ill person, including Leah, deserves the chance to live their life and pursue recovery on their own terms.

And every mentally ill person has the right – the goddamn right – to be treated with dignity.

I know that there’d be a lot of confetti on my grave if I had died six years ago. But I’m glad that I made it through. And I’ll tell you why, Amanda.

I’m glad because I am still here to fight for mentally ill people. People who are considered too much, too sick, too crazy. People who are written off before they’re ever given a chance. People like Leah, and people like me.

Because we don’t deserve to die. We deserve to live, and not only that, but live to tell our stories the way they should be told.

Not by people who want to exploit our struggles, but by us, celebrating the people we’ve become because of them.

Leah doesn’t get that chance. But there are people out there who still can.

And I hope they take your essay with a grain of fucking salt.

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