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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Mental Illness, A Failure to Understand

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 13th 2011

Mental Illness, A Failure to UnderstandWe talk a lot about the fact that mental illness continues to carry a lot of stigma with it. There is no doubt that this is true and is a serious problem. However, there is another, related problem to this and that is the failure of friends and relatives to understand what is happening to their loved one.


She is a young woman and neighbor at my summer address. For our purposes I will refer to her as "Max." One morning, in the relaxed casual talk between neighbors, she began talking about some of her problems, the major one of which was that she was diagnosed with rapid cycling Bipolar II Disorder. This was not as strange as it might seem because she was aware of my profession in mental health. Upset about her family, complained that neither her husband or family understand what she really goes through when she is in a episode of mania or depression.

When Max tried to tell them how bad she felt, their response is to say such things as, "You look well, just stop worrying," or, "You don't need medication, you are just fine," or "Everyone goes through these things," or "There is nothing wrong with you," or "you complain too much about small things. Max experiences great frustration with this because her family and friends do not seem to hear what she is saying. She gets no sense of validation from them.

Instead of validation, she feels blamed for not doing things right or for burdening them with her problems. At the very least, she does not feel their empathy or support.

Max states that, rather than being given advice, she wishes people could just say that it must be hard for her and that they love her anyway.

Advice is too easily given by well meaning people who believe they are being helpful. In actuality, what most of us want when we are troubled is, metaphorically speaking, "a shoulder to cry on."

This is the message that Max's story conveys. Empathy and understanding go a long way for anyone who is emotionally stressed.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD




Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Just be supportive..... - Janet Singer - Sep 22nd 2011

Thank you for this eye-opening post. I actually posted something quite similar on my blog recently: 

Many OCD sufferers don't share with their families because family members, while they may be well-meaning, often minimize what their loved one is going through.....I guess this reaction is true for other disorders as well.

But what if............ - Cathy - Sep 14th 2011

While I understand the whole empathy thing and unfortunately I am more likely than not to be there, many of these people can be emotional vampires and suck you dry not to mention that when you need someone, they are always too wrapped up in themselves to have time for you.  I also think that most people just don't know what to say and feel that they are reassuring the person.  Also, again, so many people are being diagnosed, especially with bi-polar II like it is a fad. Oh yeah, I know a lot of people diagnosed with that.

so true - - Sep 14th 2011

This story is so true to me. I have really bad social anxiety as far as i can remember was 1st grade. My parent’s don’t believe in physiatrists and on the other hand i have my outspoken popular younger sister never worried what people thought of her. i was always so jelous because of my extreme anxiety, I failed in my achievements of getting an education career even a job lets not even talk about a husband. My life is near impossible i'm 35 and still live with my parents i heard and still do why don’t you become a model i know most would say that a blessing but i pretty much go into what feels like a seizure but its a panic attack when i hear that i feel judged  unlike my sister I don’t want all eyes on me, people say I’m the prettier one thats not what I want, I want to be indivisible serve my time pray it passes fast, be humble, and pray for whatever awaits me isn’t a feel of hell like this. Why me? A lot of people would think that my beauty is an advantage and take charge I cant I hope someone reading this understands. It’s like I’m blessed and cursed at the same time. If there is a past life I’m being punished I would guess?

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