Would You Know What a Mental Illness Really Looks Like?

To be able to recognize when our mental wellbeing (or that of those we love) is slipping, we need to have some idea of what that experience might look or feel like. Stigmas, especially in the form of stereotypes, can lead us to think that we know what is what when the reality can be much more nuanced.

'I've Got This,' 14x20" Mixed Media painting about the frustration with cultural stigmas that still exist about seeking help and receiving therapy.  Currently available here.

In last weeks’ blog post I mentioned that I didn’t recognize my mental health struggles for decades, resulting in things getting much worse for me than they needed to before I finally got some help. I had vague pictures in my head of what anxiety or depression should look like, and spoiler alert, they were not accurate.

To my mind, anxiety was all-day every-day crippling anxiety attacks of shaking, crying, absolute panic while the poor sufferer was crouched in a corner hugging their knees. And I thought that someone who had depression could not possibly force themselves to get out of bed ever and just spent all day crying and having no functionality at all. I wasn’t these pictures, so clearly, I just needed to be fine.

My issues were internalized as more of a personal or moral failing. I thought I should be able to push past my struggles with sheer determination. But of course that never really worked well, or at least was never sustainable, and it just made how I saw myself spiral further and further. Turns out, I DID have generalized anxiety, persistent depressive disorder, trauma, and undiagnosed ADHD, and there were in fact many forms of support available to me.

I do think it’s safe to say that stigmas surrounding mental illness have improved some with the help of awareness initiatives and social media sharing. But they are no where near gone.

If we want to throw some numbers at it, the Journal of Health and Social Behavior showed that: (8)

  • 38% of people do not want to move next door to someone who lives with mental illness.

  • 56% do not want to spend an evening socializing with someone with mental illness.

  • 33% do not want to make friends with someone who lives with mental illness.

  • 58% do not want to work closely with someone with mental illness.

  • 68% do not want someone with mental illness to marry into their family.

What are Mental Health Stigmas? 

In the context of mental illness, it’s an unfair sense of shame put upon people with mental illness by society, and when it’s pervasive, people can even put it upon themselves. It comes in the form of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Fear of prejudices and judgements (as well as internalized judgements) can prevent people from seeking help by avoiding therapy, medications, and diagnosis all together. And discrimination can stop people from having access to help at all.

Internalized stigma, when we start to believe the stenotypes about ourselves (ie: I'm so pathetic, why can't I just push through like everyone else?  I'll never accomplish anything.), can be just as insidious when we know it leads to lower self-esteem, less ability to fulfill work or social obligations, and in a vicious spiral, even higher levels of depression. (6)

Cultural Misconceptions

1. 'People with mental illness are dangerous'

Lots of entertainment use the mentally ill as scary villains. Movies like Identity or Split make dissociative identity disorder out to be a refuge of murderers. The Visit, Joker, Psycho, and countless others misportray mental illness as frightening and violent for the sake of an exciting story, but exacerbate harmful stigmas. Even the news often focuses on dissecting if perpetrators of violent crime are mentally ill.

'Here's Johnny!' Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining, 1980 Stanley Kubrick Horror Film.  While I do love this film, it might not be the most helpful portrayal of mental illness.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority points out that on 3-5% of recorded violent acts can be attributed to people with severe mental illnesses, as well as less than 1% of all gun-related homicides. Even severe mental illness is generally seen as a casual factor that might compound with environmental factors like abuse or addictions to potentially lead to violence. (1)

And what about mental health institutions? Far more movies portray them as places of terrible abuse than a place focused on healing. Theme park horror asylum rides? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, anybody? Is that going to make anyone eager to get treatment? Or is it going to make anyone care when funding for these services fail?

2. 'Mental Illness is the sufferers fault because they are weak or incompetent'

Many people still fear being rejected or shunned by their families or communities if it is known that they have a mental illness.  It is deeply seeded in our culture to value resilience, strength over perceptions of weakness, and stoicism.

Do any of these phrases hit as familiar?

“You just need to get over it.”
“Why can’t you snap out of it.”
“Suck it up.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
"Let it go."

The belief that it’s a weakness that can just be pushed through only serves to lead those suffering to see it as a moral failing when we now know better.  Dismissing the realities of suffering or struggles only serves to dehumanize and isolate people when they may otherwise be able to overcome or manage their mental illnesses with the right support.

3. The curious history of misogyny with mental illness

From early accounts from Egyptians and the Greek, women's struggles with mental health were lumped in together with infertility and other diagnosis to be described as hysteria, and relating directly to the uterus.  There was an idea that perpetuated that the uterus traveled around the body causing different issues that could be corrected by exposing a woman to different scents.  This was also thought to be possibly caused by a 'sad uterus' (ie, the woman wasn't having sex and the uterus somehow needed it.)

These ideas morphed a bit in the Middle Ages with the churches involvement.  Signs of hysteria could be treated as the influence of evil and punished.  This is a very abbreviated highlight of a few notable points of history when the whole history of hysteria is really quite complex and bizarre, and I will thoroughly dig into it at another time. (Make sure you are subscribed to my Collectors Circle Newsletter to get notified when new posts go live.)

Even though we can discount these ideas as outdate or laugh off their outlandishness, the effects of centuries of harmful gender based stigmas still linger.  Women are more likely to not be taken seriously by doctors.  Women are still underrepresented in clinical and drug trials.  Women are more likely to get misdiagnosed. (7)

There can also be a fear of mothers being labeled as unfit if their struggles are visible or they are open about them.

If you add on intersectional prejudices that communities of minorities or LGBTQ+ people receive, then the stigmas and discrimination can easily be compounded. Many of these communities face their own unique challenges of expectations from within, to mistreatment or lack of access to treatment. (2) (3)

What Can We Do?

We can take an active roll in reducing stigmas to help improve support, and access to support for all. McLean Hospital (4) writes that the best ways to combat stigma are to:

  1. Educate ourselves and others about mental illness.
  2. Stand up against and call out harmful and unfair depictions.
  3. Talk to with people who experience mental illness.
  4. Treat people who have a mental illness with the same respect and dignity as you would anyone with any illness.
  5. Share our own experiences openly.

Learning more helps to normalize what is, in fact, normal. It can make us more compassionate, empathetic, and better able to support ourselves and others who are struggling. There are many support groups either in person or online where we can find community and learn from people (5), and incredible online resources to learn from credible institutions that publish information, studies, and resources.

Broken Like a Badass Drawing
'Broken Like a Badass' watercolor sketch from 2019, when I was looking to find internal strength and acceptence.

We know that social media can spread plenty of stereotypes and misinformation. However it has been integral in creating the ability for people who experience mental illness to share their experiences and talk about what it is like, to share messages of support, and to share valuable resources. We should share our experiences honestly and authentically if we are comfortable to do so. The less we collectively hide our mental illnesses, the more we help perpetuate a culture of shame. While sharing, we should do our best to speak nonjudgmentally and be kind to people.

If you’ve been able to receive professional help, talk about it. I have the best therapist right now. And I recommend therapy to anyone struggling, with the caveat that not every therapist will be your right fit for you. I’ve had four other therapists who were all fine people, (full disclosure, most switches happened because of changes in my insurance coverage over time) but the one I have now has really been able to help me where I am.

Getting professional help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a way to find your strength again.

If you need support right now, here is a great list of hotline resources to start with.

Why am I writing about this?

I'm Lynell Ingram, an artist with inattentive ADHD, depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and I use my art to talk openly about these experiences.  I want to destigmatize women's mental illnesses so that we can recognize them, have safe access to the right treatments, and support each other with no shame.  You can see all of my available paintings here, and my affordable though very limited edition fine art prints here.  I also make some fun and encouraging products about mental health that are available at my Mental Health Matterz shop.  

Any purchases you make help me to keep creating, writing, and researching so I can share what I find and continue to use my artwork to get people thinking and talking in a positive way.  Even every small change may mean one more woman can be supported to live her best life, and that is worth it.



  1. https://icjia.illinois.gov/researchhub/articles/mental-illness-and-violence-is-there-a-link/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5568160/
  3. https://mhanational.org/issues/lgbtq-communities-and-mental-health
  4. https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/lets-face-it-no-one-wants-talk-about-mental-health
  5. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4744295/
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30907615/
  8. https://deconstructingstigma.org/about-stigma
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1 comment

Sounds like You and I have faced similar challenges, and we are both artists. Funny how that works. I’ve got bad news for the 56% who don’t want to socialize with us. They are either missing out on amazing relationships, or they’ve been socializing with people who have mental illness without recognizing it, or they are mentally ill, themselves. We are everywhere! We are incredibly powerful! We persevere!

Samantha Thomas

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