What It Feels Like to Live with Mental Illness

When someone has a broken leg, the evidence is visible. They have a cast, possibly crutches; people can witness their struggle with opening doors or navigating furniture. But when someone has a mental illness or disorder, the evidence may not be obvious—if others can see it at all. And no can see “inside” the struggle of trying to navigate a mental illness or what it feels like to have one.

Mental Illness Statistics

Mental illnesses and disorders are not uncommon. One in five adults in the US lives with a mental illness; one in 25 experiences serious mental illness. Rates are higher among women, young adults age 18–25 and multiracial adults. One in six children age 6–17 experiences a mental health disorder each year. Disorders affect nearly 50% of adolescents age 13–18; a fifth of this age group experiences serious mental illness. 

Half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14; 75% begins by age 24. Anxiety is the most common disorder, followed by depression, PTSD, bipolar and other disorders. 

Even though mental illness is relatively common, only half or fewer of those experiencing mental illness receive treatment, and just 65% of adults with serious mental illness get help. Disturbingly, there is an average 11-year delay between the onset of symptoms and treatment. 

The View from the Inside

Even when people are aware of someone’s diagnosis or the textbook description of a disorder, they can’t actually know how it feels. When you have a mental health illness or disorder, you can feel:

  • Out of control
  • Alone
  • Afraid of yourself or others
  • Embarrassed or ashamed or unworthy
  • Frustrated and exhausted by the constant battle within yourself
  • Misunderstood, especially when others assume you are dangerous or violent 

You may wonder if your behaviors and actions are really you—or your disorder. Small problems for others can be large hurdles for you. You may fake being cheerful or “normal,” afraid of others’ reactions if you express what’s really going on. You may feel trapped by your illness, to the point of helplessness and hopelessness. 

Anxiety Disorder is not the temporary worry that everyone experiences; it includes fear as well as worry. AD can get worse with time and interfere with relationships and daily activities. Symptoms include feelings of restlessness and irritability… trouble concentrating and sleeping… muscle tensions, fatigue and heart palpitations… shortness of breath, dizziness and nausea. Irrational fears and worries take over, and it’s difficult to dismiss them. 

Panic Disorder involves sudden periods of intense fear that can come out of the blue or be triggered by a situation or specific fears. Heart palpitations, trembling, shortness of breath and feeling out of control are hallmarks of panic attacks, which differ from anxiety attacks. An attack can be terrifying, making you feel like you’re in immediate danger (often of dying). Others may not notice anything if you tend to “freeze” during an attack. 

“The first time I had a panic attack I was in my friend’s house, and I thought the house was burning down. I called my mom and she brought me home. For the next three years it just would not stop.”

Actor Emma Stone 

Depression is defined as a “low mood” that lasts for an extended period, two years to be considered a disorder. Feelings of hopelessness are accompanied by irritability, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, oversleeping or not being able to sleep, and sometimes thoughts of death or suicide. The world can seem a dark place, and you may feel everyone else is better off without you in it. Depression is isolating and often debilitating; it can take a tremendous push of energy just to get out of bed.

Bipolar Disorder is marked by extreme shifts in mood, energy and activity level. Very “up” (manic) episodes and behaviors alternate with very “down” (depressive) episodes. They sometimes occur together. You can feel on top of the world to an unhealthy and unwise degree, indulging in risky behaviors such as overspending and substance use. You feel creative and optimistic during manic episodes, able to do anything and everything. Then as depression takes over you feel unable to do even the simplest things. 

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, develops after a traumatic event, experienced or witnessed. Residual fear, bad dreams and flashbacks are common. You may avoid or respond fearfully to triggers that remind you of the event. For example, if you witnessed a fatal fall, just the sight of the roofers next door can give you a sudden rush of adrenaline. You may be easily startled, edgy, angry and unable to sleep. You may experience a loss of memory about the event. PTSD is sometimes described as a war within yourself that never goes away. Sometimes every nerve is awake and stays awake; you’re on high alert all the time. 

“I’m fine, but I’m bipolar. I’m on seven medications, and I take medication three times a day. This constantly puts me in touch with the illness I have. I’m never quite allowed to be free of that for a day. It’s like being a diabetic.”

the late actor Carrie Fisher

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is marked by an inability to focus and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. ADHD interferes with functioning at school, on the job and socially. You may appear inattentive. You may miss details, fail to meet deadlines and lose things. You may be unable to stay still, talk constantly and interrupt others. You may feel stupid and different from everyone else or wish you had an OFF button for your brain. Distractions can make it difficult to get to your mental “destination.”

Autism is a developmental disorder affecting communication and behavior. It  occurs on a spectrum from mild to severe, manifesting in restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Symptoms include lack of eye contact, not listening to others, inability to respond to social cues from others, repeating words, irritability and sleep problems. As an autistic person, sensory overload can be uncomfortable and scary. You may experience misunderstanding and cruelty, feeling crazy because others often label you that way.

The Importance of Getting Help

Mental illness affects all areas of life, not just the neurological or emotional. The  National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that high schoolers with depression symptoms are twice as likely to drop out. Adults who have mental illness are twice as likely to be unemployed. And people with depression have 40% more risk of developing heart and metabolic diseases; that rate doubles for those with serious mental illness.

It can be hard to know what you don’t know—people don’t always realize they have a mental disorder until it begins to interfere with daily living, gets them in trouble or causes someone to notice that they need help. It’s important to get help as soon as possible; don’t suffer silently. Best Day’s counselors are skilled in assessments for mental illnesses and disorders; they will help you get the treatment you need so you can have the productive life you deserve.

How We Can Help You?

Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help:

Fayetteville: (910) 323-1543  Fuquay-Varina: (919) 567-0684  Raleigh: (919) 670-3939  Greenville: (252) 375-3322  Durham: (919) 659-8686