A woman sits in my office, crying, after she finishes telling me her story. She’s had a hard life full of mental health issues and substance abuse. When she finishes her story, she wipes her eyes and looks at me. Then she asks me the most dreaded question in counseling: “What’s wrong with me?”
How would you answer that question?
The “Normal” Answer
The most common answer to this question is something to the effect of “Oh, hun, nothing! It’s okay! It’s fine! Don’t worry about that right now.”
I find this approach to be a bit of a crutch or hindrance to getting better because it doesn’t feel honest. You have a mental illness, yes, and you should be made aware of that. But that doesn’t mean your mental illness is something wrong with you. It’s simply a part of who you are, like being diabetic. It’s because of something inside of you that you did nothing to cause. It’s just there and it just happened.
The Real Answer
The reality of the situation is there’s nothing wrong with her, or at least no more than anyone else. She has a mental illness and that’s okay.
In my time in mental health, I’ve found many people with mental illness have never been told that it’s okay to have a mental illness. They have not been told it’s not their fault and they did nothing wrong to deserve their diagnosis.
They have never been told that mental illnesses have to be cared for like physical illnesses. They have never told that a mental illness diagnosis is not the end of the world.
The best way I’ve found to address this question is to be honest. In the example above, she happens to have Major Depressive Disorder and Stimulant Use Disorder. Yes, those diagnoses present specific challenges and will require continued care. This might mean medication, therapy, or group. That’s okay. It’s just like going to the doctor to check on a physical illness, like diabetes.
Unlike physical illnesses, though, it is rare that mental illness is visible to others so it can feel very lonely. This is another thing most people will mental illness are never told.
All The Things You’re Never Told
I’ve mentioned before that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I even spent years asking myself “What’s wrong with me?”
It took being told by a friend with anxiety that it’s okay for me to be courageous enough to seek help. And the longer I work in mental health, the more I see a need to tell my clients what I’ve learned.
I mentioned several things my clients have never heard. I want to make sure that there is at least one person out there telling you it’s okay and other things you need to hear, though this is not a comprehensive list:
- Mental illness is treatable.
- Mental illness is not damning.
- Mental illness is manageable.
- Mental illness requires constant care.
- You are not alone.
- You did nothing wrong.
- You are not broken.
- There’s nothing wrong with you.
- There are ways to handle it.
- You might need to learn different ways to do things.
- Mental illness is not contagious.
- It’s okay to get help.
- It’s okay to go to a hospital.
- It’s okay to take medication(s).
- You are more than your mental illness.
- You are not just a diagnosis.
- You can change therapists until you find one that works well for you.
- Mental illness can feel lonely.
- It’s okay to talk about it.
- It’s okay to not talk about it.
- You are not crazy.
- You are not alone.
Feel free to add what you want others to know, or what you wish you had been told below in the comments.