The Language of Mental Illness

Can you remember the first conversation you had with another person with a similar diagnosis after being diagnosed with some form of mental illness?

I’ve been thinking all day about the language of mental illness.


Imagine you are 16 years old and have just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Perhaps your parents try to talk to you about it, but for whatever reason (beyond sheer embarrassment and the fact that you’re 16) you’re trapped in, “you have no idea how I feel” land and the conversations go nowhere.

Then, someone comes to you who can actively engage in conversation about bipolar disorder. It could be a friend, a family member, or a stranger, but chances are that this person has experienced something inside the realm of “mental illness” themselves.

The point of this first conversation might be valid. If the person conversing doesn’t have a reference to how mental illness feels, how can they actively communicate about it?

Is the language of mental illness something inherent for those of us with mental illness, or is the language absorbed in some way? Or could be that there are elements of both?


Early on in my diagnosis, and my early therapy and support group years I recall attempting conversations with a lot of people that didn’t speak the language. The conversations I was having with people felt strained, hesitant, questioning, and I knew that something about me must be different because people weren’t understanding the concepts I was talking about. Honestly, I can’t imagine what a life lived without any major bouts of depression would be like, so I suppose that is where my own boundaries of language and experience are limited.

When people who have never experienced depression ask what it is like, the resulting response is like trying to describe how huge the universe is. I can relate the size of an apple to a softball, but I can’t relate the size of the universe to anything because there isn’t anything familiar the same size to relate it to. In the same way, how do I relate depression to someone who has nothing to compare it to?

I suppose that suggests the mental illness language is derivative of our own knowledge of self.

Someone (who is not bipolar) told me that she was trying desperately to speak to her friend who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She said it wasn’t until she began to relate her own experience with an anxiety disorder that her friend began to take the conversation seriously.

I’ve found similar instances in my own experience that show the mental illness language doesn’t have to be limited within a single specific diagnosis. The first support group I ever attended was in a very small town where I grew up, at the time I was the only person in my age range at that facility who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Even though the young woman sitting to my right had an eating disorder (so one might think I wouldn’t have gotten much out of it), she could speak the language. At 17 it didn’t matter to me what her diagnosis was, just knowing that there was someone who could speak the same language as me within a 5 mile radius was comforting.

There are so many symptoms that overlap for different diagnoses that one who knows the language can almost always find a way to relate to conversation. And with such a high potential for comorbid diagnoses, the palette of symptoms only widens for the individual.

Anyone who has felt depression, anxiety, paranoia, uncontrollable urges, obsessive behavior, panic, suicidal, detached, or unable to focus, (not to mention a plethora of other things), well I’m betting you speak this language.

You may not even know it yet.

2 responses to “The Language of Mental Illness

  1. Pingback: Saying It Out Loud « bi[polar] curious

  2. My wife knew I was depressed when I looked at her and said flatly “I want to die.” It is hard for one who has never been there to even remotely understand the place inside you from which that comes. They’ve never lived in that land and simply don’t speak that language. Sarah, I know you, I’ve been you, I am you.

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