Explaining Mental Illness to Family and Friends

Mental illnesses are complex and difficult to understand. Because they often contain so many unique and intertwined symptoms, it’s tough to grasp what’s actually happening below the surface and how it translates into a person’s daily activities and interactions. Even more difficult is explaining mental illness to others. Whether you suffer from a mental illness or you have a loved one who has been diagnosed, telling friends and family members can be difficult and trying.

Understanding Mental Illnesses


Before you can attempt to explain mental illness to family and friends, you must be able to grasp the concept yourself. This doesn’t mean studying medical textbooks and reviewing research papers, but it does require some deciphering.

So, what is a mental illness? Well, it can be any combination of factors that impair normal cognitive, behavioral, or emotional functioning. These factors may be biochemical, psychological, genetic, or social in nature. The difficulty is determining which factors are the root causes and how they are impairing normal functioning.

Every mental illness is different and unique. Disorders can be related to mood, depression, anxiety, personality, substance abuse, addictions, and more. While doctors may be able to diagnose a particular mental illness, they are rarely identical between two people.

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4 Tips for Explaining Mental Illness


Going into discussions with this in mind allows you to better approach each situation. Here are a few tips for explaining mental illness to family and friends:

  • All Ages are Different. Public speakers are often told the number one key to delivering an effective speech is knowing who your audience is. This piece of advice should also be heeded when explaining mental illness. You’re going to explain it differently to children than you would adults. One pre-canned explanation won’t do the trick. Children need simple, big picture statements, while adults will want answers and details.
  • Analogies Can Help. For anyone, but especially children, analogies can be very useful. Take /treatment-specialties/bipolar-disorders/ for example. As one of the most difficult to understand mental illnesses, it’s nearly impossible to appropriately explain to people who are unfamiliar with it. Using the analogy of a stove can help. Explain that most people have low, medium, and high settings, while those with bipolar only have low and high programming.
  • Education is Important. If friends and loved ones are truly confused but interested in learning more, suggest some books and educational material. Many books have been published by therapists and doctors and do a much better job of explaining the symptoms, causes, and outlook of certain mental illnesses.
  • Prepare for Questions. Most friends and family will have questions and you have to be prepared to encourage and answer them. This is the best way to let people in on what’s truly going on and how they should react.

Getting Help


Mental illnesses can be difficult to explain and deal with. If you or a loved one need help treating a mental illness, Bridges to Recovery offers effective, internationally renowned, and licensed residential treatment programs for patients of all types. For more information, please contact us today.