What Does It Mean to Have a Mental Illness?

MAR. 01, 2017

By Brendan McLean


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines a “mental disorder” as “a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.”

The DSM-5 is a guidebook that is followed by clinicians, psychiatrists, therapists and other mental health providers to help them decide how to evaluate and diagnose when patients come into their office, hospital or other treatment setting. But like the walls of a hospital, the guidebook may seem a little clinical and sterile. It doesn’t provide much insight into what those illnesses really translate into for real people. It doesn’t explain what it’s like to live day-to-day with a mental illness.

No two days are the same, nor is each person’s experience. Beyond the clinical classification of what it means to have a mental illness, there is the personal experience that shapes the life of someone who is affected by these conditions.

So rather than coming up with one, clinical definition of a mental disorder, mental illness, mental health condition or whatever name you'd like to call it, we asked people in our Facebook community who live with and experience mental illness on a daily basis how they define it. This is what they said.


NOV, 15, 2017 12:03:52 PM
Kimberly Ferguson
I was diagnosed with Bipolar in 1993, age 18 and for 24 years with two children oldest is 24, my youngest is 6. I am an author of 3 books on Amazon and help others with mental illness, gave a speech on it, write poetry about it. I am 42 in college for my Bachelor's degree either work with politicians or become one advocating for mental health and representing all women and men of color. My race does not like to tell so they often do not get well. I will tell and get well and stop going through hell. I reveal it so God can heal it. I take one pill of Geodon for 15 years and manage, cope, have hope,it takes daily maintenance, patience, encouragement and nourishment, exercise,I write, I go to school, I work twice a week, I help people on social media. I removed men years ago which was a trigger of bad impulsive decisions, I am learning to live life on my own terms, laughter is medicine, investing in my health, stability,resillient, determined, persevere, and am clear, persist, resist negative people, removed people and life drastically improved. You are not alone! We all have hope and can cope! You are a light to shine bright and everything is gonna be alright! Change old thoughts, remind yourself you will succeed! You are brave! You will get through this! Talk about it! I share and care because I am aware! We are ONE! You are strong! You will be okay!

SEP, 19, 2017 07:43:23 AM
I had been diagnosed at age eleven after my first*(not actually first but most serious) suicide attempt as borderline personality disorder/manic depressive and severe PTSD. My mother gave me my first taste of methamphetamines also at age eleven. I think this could have a lot to do with the way I think, but, I am not putting the whole blame on street drugs because of what little I know...there are strictly defined genetics involved. I come from a long line of unstable and close relatives. I cannot count how many times I've been hospitalized sine eleven and recently discharged yesterday for yet another very close attempt on my life, I am now 36. I cannot shake the nearly constant suicidal ideations especially when life's stakes are high meaning...Changes for the most part. I am grieving the loss of someone I've never met...Me. There is so much to who I am, what has happened and how I got here(and believe me I don't feel like here is a very significant place to be right now) that I don't know my a** from a hole in the ground. My mind races and my body trembles when I try to hug someone. I cannot sleep on a regular basis and am hardly ever hungry. I cannot think straight and lose focus more times than I do focus. I have been hospitalized three times this year already and unfortunelty the stays(very short as they were) were not helpful at all, its the same old shuffle. Evaluation, sleepless night, early morning with the five min session with psychiatrist and then the rigorous meetings with "helpful" professional staff throughout a single day that leaves your head spinning and left forgetting anything anyone really said to you. I wish I could open my own hospital for behavioral and mental health disorders, I know I have thousands of ideas to improve this decay that we call the mental health system. I am facing my third divorce and I am still yet young. All I think is that there is something seriously wrong with me and there aren't too many that would disagree with that opinion. I relapsed last year on meth in October after sixteen years clean. My marriage was falling apart, my husband was/is cheating and I actually though doing drugs would help me. Help stay calm, help me to lose weight, become stronger and maybe become more attractive...to no avail, and justifiably so. I continued to do drugs on and off and still do. I am at a stagnant stand still. My life is falling apart right in front of my eyes and seemingly there is nothing I can do about it and in comes the suicidal thoughts accompanied by extreme paranoia(with or without drugs-usually sober) irrational thoughts and left field tendencies to act on impulse. I am scared most of the time of almost everything, even now, writing this and these a fragments of everything I'd like to put down in words. I am not a bad person, although I have little to no self worth...I am learning bit by bit. There are so many things I need to talk about and have no one to do that with that I can fully trust. I believe I lack a natural hormone to develop or keep "love" interpreted "trust" as one in the same as far as I am concerned. I feel alone and have no idea if there is anyone that I can reach out to on a daily basis unlike the one hour a week(if I'm lucky) with a therapist and ten minutes a month with psychiatrist. The caseworkers I have had seem exasperated as so are any spiritual leader I've tried to reach out to and quite frankly most friends. Some people just cannot handle the multifaceted intricate details of my life or feelings that accompany those details when expressing myself and I admittedly can be overwhelming. I have been told about NAMI but not a lot. I've been told I would make a great impact in NAMI, even a leader....but that is so scary to me I have difficulties even fathoming the responsibility being the state I'm in and fear I may always be. I am writing here to reach out and possibly find someone or a group to help me...I need a support system and need to meet people that are knowlegble in areas like the ones I find myself occupying all too often. Please HELP. I am at the end of my rope and firmly pressing a cold hard steel barrel to my skull and pulling the trigger is NOT what I want to be the last impression I make in my life or on the world. I know I'm strong. I just cannot discern how strong enough I am anymore.

AUG, 27, 2017 02:37:08 PM
some suggestions as to whom I could talk to in nyc (group) to give me some feedback that is smart, pragmatic w. a history o f success.

MAY, 04, 2017 03:12:25 AM
There is stigma in the mental health community about my diagnosis I just keep educating like I will in my peer to peer group I'm in run by NAMI. - See more at: https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/March-2017/What-Does-It-Mean-to-Have-a-Mental-Illness#sthash.5LCP6CFd.dpuf

MAR, 18, 2017 01:06:15 AM
Misti Cranford
Well my brother all mental condition, he died at 50 , now my son that went to college graduate double. Manor om political science he's 31 and had to be hospital for 8 months now he takes takes his meds want leave the house he gets so flipped out around alot of people and now I a having the seei g TBI GS that are not there and mood swings and they say personality disorder axixity along with how does this happen one day you are graduate from college smart no this what is going own they both are taking g to people I do t see and sometime they act right around d certai. People and they ti. Outside buck ass necked I need some help with the understanding of how ,my mom says my brother did drugs well my son. Does not do any now she blames everything g own drugs hereditary maybe I .need a book that explains this mothers deaf can't talk to her but she can read all she ever done was put him in jail 8months je was in solitary confinement by his self and didn't get no meds or treatment for6months in the jail please o need answers thanks misticranford4131@gmail. Com

MAR, 12, 2017 06:05:29 PM
Gail Diaz
Thank you all for sharing! I will show this to my son who has expressed some of the same feelings that you have.

MAR, 04, 2017 11:07:52 PM
Alicyn Leader
I don't see my dignosis as a mental illness just as a skill that I devoloped very younge in order to survive horrific conditions and experiaces. With out this skill I would not be alive today. It has become habit I've done it so offten to survive it has gone rouge. With hard work I stoped spliting after the major trauma stoped. I've integrated some and better lease on life. It's changing your coping skills and using your tools that are healthier that defines me. It's up to me to get the suport system and therapist and med Dr. and any other service that I need. Not take no for an answer because my diagnois isn't popular well repusented or people don't believe in it although it's in the dignostic manual under a whole class of disociative disorders that are seldomly talked about. There is stigma in the mental health community about my diagnosis I just keep educating like I will in my peer to peer group I'm in run by NAMI.

MAR, 04, 2017 08:26:11 PM
Stephanie Gardner
Do you know of any similar organizations in Canada?

MAR, 02, 2017 08:01:13 PM
It means not everyone will understand...

MAR, 01, 2017 03:03:35 PM
It is helpful to read these , thank you for writing them.
It is helpful to read this, thank you for writing your descriptions and feelings.

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