steps to take when explaining mental illness to others

“Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes…” What a great-sounding but impossible suggestion. We can muster all our empathy and strength, but we can never fully understand everyone’s struggles. Try explaining mental illness to others, and you’ll know this all too well.
Mental illness is especially frustrating. We can list off the blanket descriptions of every mental illness, but accurately explaining mental illness to others is a daunting task. All you know is what you’ve personally experienced. Words can only communicate so much.

Not only is explaining mental illness to others a straight-forward way to increase awareness, but it’s also a means of outreach to receive the help you need. It’s easy to keep your emotions bottled inside. Taking that step outside your comfort zone is difficult but well worth it.
So, how can we go about effectively explaining mental illness to others? Every situation is different, but here are some general ideas to keep in mind to encourage and strengthen you.

know the recipient.

I’m guilty of easily explaining mental illness to others online, or in a public forum where I’m not getting into nitty-gritty details. It’s more or less setting down a platform for advocacy and not thinking too deeply about how those listeners react.
A one-on-one conversation is much harder. You really love and care about the recipient. Maybe they’re concerned about your well-being. They want to make sure you’re okay. Admitting your hardships, in turn, feels like you’re weak.
In either situation, you’re becoming vulnerable, and that’s scary. To make the most of that moment, know the audience. Learn what to explain in what setting. How close am I to the people I’m talking to? What is the context of the situation? Is it even appropriate to bring up mental illness right now?
As long as there’s a stigma surrounding mental illness, there’s a fear of feeling misunderstood and even discredited for opening up. Yes, do say something if you’re called to do so. Yes, be mindful of your words. To feel fulfilled, give equally to what you’ll receive in support and personal guidance.

don’t mince words.

Another easy habit I do when explaining mental illness to others is downplaying how I feel. If someone asks how I am, I virtually always say, I’m well. I’m fine. Just dandy. Even when I’m in a really dark place.
You communicate what think is appropriate. Regardless of your recipient, be honest. How do you actually feel? Simply stating you’re not okay could be very powerful, even creating an opportunity to explain and share more. You cannot treat yourself well if you’re going about each day wearing a smiling mask.
People tend to overuse language related to mental illness, like saying you’re depressed when you’re actually sad. This could make it trickier to get your point across. If anything, help your listener visualize how you’re feeling. Describe what mental illness feels like for you. Give your mood that day on a scale. Draw comparisons, such as the feeling of an elephant constantly standing on your shoulders and weighing you down, or a threat always looming in the background.
Simply put, if you’re explaining mental illness to others, especially those that haven’t personally experienced it, make sure you’re speaking your truth. The hardest conversations tend to be the most important. Take a deep breath; you’ve got this.

allow for questions.

If your recipient wants to learn more or even elaborate from their perspective, more power to them. Be open to this happening and know that it’s an important way to fully grasp the reality of mental illness.
You don’t have to answer every question if it may trigger you, but stay vulnerable. Typical questions relate to how long you’ve had mental illness, the symptoms, and your treatment. They’re likely questions you’ve heard before, so mentally prepare for them.
Also, have resources in mind to direct your listener to for more information. You likely know plenty about yourself, but there’s a plethora of information to seek out regarding mental health. Websites like NAMI,, NIMH, and many more offer more general details on specific mental illnesses and treatments.
Even if the question-and-answer format makes you uncomfortable, see this process as an organic way of increasing awareness. It also shows how much this person cares about you and wants to support you in any way they can. Mental illness is isolating, but it often takes a whole village to fight.
Remember: knowing where and when you need help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

keep the conversation going.

Explaining mental illness to others is an ongoing process. Don’t let it stop at one interaction. If your recipient turns out to be a member of your support system, keep them informed. When they ask how you are, don’t leave it at a single cliché word. Give them the chance to understand and help.
Discussing your mental health will be an ongoing process. The setting and frequency in which you open up is entirely your choice. Not everyone wants to be an outspoken mental health advocate; just do you.
This and every conversation is a two-way street. If you’re explaining mental illness to others, allow others to become vulnerable with you. Show them all the love and compassion they deserve. Direct them toward help when appropriate.
The more we all choose to discuss our mental health, the more normal it’ll become. My ultimate goal is to no longer have to write a post like this for explaining mental illness to others because we already know. We’ve already opened up, and everything’s out in the open, accepted and appreciated. Until that day, let’s keep speaking our truth and treating ourselves well. Hopefully everyone else follows suit.
We might not be able to walk in one another’s shoes, but we can grab our own pair and walk beside others. Empathy is our greatest power. Granting air time for the unspoken topics is difficult but necessary. Please, keep explaining mental illness to others. Keep going on those walks of understanding. Your impact is greater than you realize.
What advice would you give to someone when explaining mental illness to others? It’s not easy, so we’ll take all the help we can get.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie
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