Here’s How Close You Are to Being Mentally Ill

Way Closer than You Think

Mental Illness Hell

Mental illness is still stigmatized in this country, along with taking the medications that often treat it. The main reason it is stigmatized is that most people just don’t understand it. If that’s you, I think I’ve come up with a way of explaining it that may finally help you get it, and is has to do with how close you are to being mentally ill yourself. Way closer than you might think.

Your Brain Generates Thoughts

Every organ in your body has a specific function (the ones that don’t are often considered useless), and each function produces something. Your lungs process and distribute oxygen. Your kidneys clean your blood of toxins and produce urine. Your liver also serves as a filter and produces bile. Your heart beats, producing a blood supply that keeps circulating through the body, delivering the fresh oxygen from the lungs.

Your brain, also, is an organ that produces something. Your brain produces thoughts. They are the “product.”

Just like you don’t have to do anything in order for your other organs to work, you don’t have to do anything for your brain to produce thoughts. Of course you can intentionally create and absorb  thoughts — but your brain will think whether you want to or not. It’s just what your brain does.

The thoughts your brain constantly produces create what you know as reality.

Some Thoughts Get Stuck on Repeat

Ever had a song stuck in your head? You don’t want it there, but the song keeps “playing” over and over again in your mind, sometimes until you feel you would do almost anything to get rid of it. Fortunately you have learned that if you just stick it out long enough, the brain will let it go all by itself, in the same mysterious way it picked it up in the first place.

But what if one day you got a song stuck in your head about gruesome violence, or about your spouse leaving you, or about wanting revenge, and what if it wouldn’t stop? What if, no matter what you did — even if you managed to distract yourself for a little while — it would always be there?

That’s anxiety and depression. A gruesome or tragic song that plays constantly in your head, and you are powerless to get rid of it. If you’ve ever had a song stuck in your head, or ever found yourself grieving a deep loss, you know what it’s like to not be able to make the thoughts — or the feelings they generate — go away.


Usually the harder we try to get rid of a thought, like our annoying song for example, the more we’re actually thinking about it. Similarly, in anxious and depressed people, every attempt to make the sad, or desperate, or lonely, or terrifying, or confusing thoughts go away only focuses attention on those thoughts, reinforcing them and driving them in more deeply.

You’ve been there yourself, maybe only for short periods of time, but you’ve been there. You know what that’s like.

See, just like people with chronic depression and anxiety, you too have a constant stream of thoughts going through your head that you did not consciously produce. (If you don’t believe me, try to completely stop thinking. You won’t even be able to do it for ten seconds.) Just like people with depression and anxiety, some of your thoughts occasionally get “stuck” in your brain and you can’t do anything to get rid of them. You’ll know you’ll have to live with it and go on about your business, that it will go away on its own.

But what if it didn’t? Instead of a line from a song, if you had scary, or dark, or sad, or confusing thoughts going through your head, and you were unable to make them go away, you’d have anxiety and/or depression. You know a little bit about what that’s like. You’ve experienced thoughts in your head  you could not control, that drove you nuts, that tormented you on some level, at least for a little while, on occasion. And that’s what it is to have anxiety and depression, only the thoughts are way worse, and it’s all the time.

That’s how close you are to being mentally ill.

There’s Nothing You Can Do

During one of your saddest or darkest times, when your thoughts were scary or sad, has somebody ever told you to cheer up, or look on the bright side? Remember how stupid that sounded and how powerless you were to stop the dark thoughts at that moment? Thank God your brain eventually dealt with that loss and those automatic thoughts disappeared on their own, huh? Whew! That was close! I’m sure you feared at the time that it would never go away. Good thing it did!

That’s life with anxiety or depression, only nothing gets rid of the dark. You can’t “cheer up” or “look on the bright side.” When people tell you these things, it rings hollow and makes no difference and you feel alone and misunderstood. And in that moment, that is what you are.

That’s how close you are to being mentally ill.

You’re Just Lucky, That’s All

What I’m saying is you just got lucky, that’s all. You’re lucky enough that the automatic thoughts you can’t shut off — the annoying songs playing in your head — only cause minor distress, because you know it will soon go away, and it’s not really painful, just annoying.

And for you, it does go away. But not because you did anything to deserve it. You just have better stuff bouncing around in  your noggin and most of the dark stuff goes away on its own.

You won a cosmic lottery.

“Just Will the Thoughts Away”

Some will object here and say, “Excuse me, I’ve been in places where I’ve had VERY dark thoughts, and I willed myself to get better. Calling it mental illness is just an excuse.”

But nope.

If looking on the bright side, or trying to be more positive, or more rational, or more calm actually worked for you — congratulations. You didn’t have clinical anxiety or depression.

Because the sign of having real, clinical anxiety or depression is precisely that you cannot will it away.

The thoughts are torturing you, and they keep coming at you, over and over again, like a dark, lonely, scary, sad song stuck in your mind on repeat. You might occasionally be able to drown it out with louder songs (other thoughts) but as soon as you let your guard down, it comes flooding back, like an old enemy.

Remember when I said your stream of automatic thoughts create your reality?

What it’s Like Being Mentally Ill

What do you imagine reality is like for a person, who — like you — has a constant stream of automatic thoughts they are unable to change, but for whom — unlike you — those thoughts just will not go away?

For many people with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and other disorders of mood, reality becomes a living hell — a nightmare from which they can never seem to fully wake up.

That’s how close you are to being mentally ill.

That’s why those who do not struggle in this way have no right to judge those who do.

I’m happy for you. Seriously. I don’t want you to fully know, understand, or relate to what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But I want you to understand enough to stop judging us.

You and Me, We’re the Same

Because you and me, we’re the same. We both have automatic thoughts rushing through our mind 24 hours a day, whether we want to or not. We both experience thoughts that are dark or scary or sad. For you, it’s once in a while, but for me, when I’m off my medication, it’s always.

For you, those thoughts were triggered by some specific situation and, as you got over that situation, your automatic thoughts began to subside and you felt better. For me, the dark thoughts need no particular reason to exist, or to play constantly in my head. They just do.

Sure, I can’t get rid of them. But when you have a song stuck in your head, you can’t get rid of it either. When your thoughts are thoughts of grief, of loss, of sorrow, or anger, you can’t just get rid  of them in a moment because someone tells you to.

Question: Does the fact that you can’t get rid of those thoughts make you fundamentally flawed, or broken, or weak? Of course not. That’s not the issue. You’re not a bad person for having those thoughts, and you’re not virtuous for not having them. They just are. Your brain generates them on its own. So does mine.

Like you, I cannot control the many thoughts that just pop into my head on their own.But unlike you, I can’t expect it to get better on its own, or when my situation changes, or by counting my blessings. These dark, scary thoughts are like a horrible song that has somehow become lodged in my head and won’t go away. When I’m off medication, that’s my reality.

See? That’s how close you are to being mentally ill. It’s such a tiny difference between us, but one that makes your reality completely different from mine or any person struggling with mood issues.

On the other hand, we’re not that far apart.

But we’re still close enough for you to understand at least a little.


I hope this has helped you understand.

Eight Things to Do to Work Through a Depressive Episode

I am depressed. (Are you? Find out here.)

I don’t just mean sad, down in the dumps, etc. I mean I am struggling, right now, with a major depressive episode. I take medication for it. It’s an ongoing reality in my life. Especially now.

I’m sleeping 12-16 hours a night and just not wanting to do anything, not finding joy in most things that I usually love. Gaining weight. Just really struggling.

I’m only posting this for one reason and it’s because when we talk about depression (if we talk about it at all), it’s usually abstract. It’s usually, “I struggle with depression and the last time I had a flare-up…” But it’s on, happening now. Now is the time to talk about it, to drag what is dark into the light.

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Why Suicide is Not Selfish


People say suicide is selfish because choice is involved, but where is choice, really?

There are behaviors we do not have a choice in. If your favorite food is chocolate cake, and I lock you in a room with a fork and a chocolate cake, it’s not a matter of if you will eat the cake, it’s just a matter of when. While you could always say you chose to eat it, if nearly everyone or everyone in your situation would have eaten it sooner or later, there is a certain inevitability to it. If it’s inevitable, it’s pretty hard to understand eating the cake as a “choice” in any meaningful sense.

So what about just toughing it out? Maybe people with depression should just suck it up.

Without treatment, staying alive, for some people with serious depression, is a constant battle. We know from studies on willpower that 1) every person has a limited amount, and 2) the harder a person fights NOT to do something, the closer they actually get to doing it. For some the fight not to commit suicide requires huge amounts of willpower and eventually depletes it. We also know that no one has unlimited willpower. No one. Not me, not you, and not your friends with depression.

What about just changing their thoughts? Why can’t they just stop thinking about suicide?

Sit quietly in a room for two minutes and try to think of nothing. You can’t do it. It’s impossible. Your mind has a mind of its own. It is constantly generating thoughts that lead you off on tangents. This proves beyond dispute that no one has total (and most don’t even have slight) control over the thoughts in their own head. If you do not have serious depression, the only difference between you and someone with it is that the thoughts that automatically come into your head are different. You are lucky, because this is little more than an accident of nature. This means if you don’t suffer from suicidal depression, it is not because you have deeper faith than people who do. It is not because you are more disciplined. It is not because you’re a more moral person, or love your family more. It is not because you have deeper insight than other people, and it’s not attributable to whether or not you believe committing suicide is a sin. If you don’t have suicidal depression, you are fortunate. That’s all. In the same way that if you don’t have MS or other diseases you are fortunate. The automatic thoughts most people naturally have are fairly harmless most of the time, but some have constant thoughts that are very dangerous. Depending on the person, their degree of suicidal ideation, genetic and environmental factors, the question is not if they will attempt to take their life, it’s just when and how. This is still almost completely unpredictable in the mental health arena. We just don’t know who will ultimately attempt suicide. [Or homicide either, which has huge implications for the gun lobby’s suggestion that we have to invest more money in getting potentially dangerous people locked up. But that’s another post.] When thoughts of suicide begin to team up with the thought that removing yourself from the world would actually be better for everybody else, you end up with the twisted notion that this is a good, and perhaps loving, thing to do.

Well horrific things have happened to me, and I haven’t committed suicide

First, you don’t have major depression. But most important, your own experience refutes your point rather than proving it. People don’t take their lives because they experience horrible things like you did. Almost no amount of personal suffering can, under normal circumstances, bring somebody to this point. But when a person has major depression, they can have all the love, money, comfort, fame, and talent in the world, like Robin did, and those things will not keep them from attempting suicide. You may know we almost lost my youngest daughter to suicide three years ago. She wasn’t selfish, she was lost. She thought she was doing us a favor. She knew we’d be hurt, but she thought we’d get over it and our lives would be much better. She didn’t know how to ask for help because she didn’t even realize how profoundly messed up her thinking was. It made sense to her. That’s terrifying to me still, to this day. And getting back into that state of mind is still what my daughter fears more than anything. A few days after her attempt, when she really realized how close she came to dying, it scared the hell out of her and she cried for hours. No one wants to die. But people will only stay alive long-term when they find a reason to live, not merely a reason to not die. I assure you, if you woke up tomorrow and couldn’t find a reason to live, and no medication or treatment could help you, you would probably not be long for this world. No person has infinite will power, and no person can live long without a reason for living. Outside observers say, “What about your children? Your family? Your friends?” But the horrible thing about depression is that, finally, even these reasons end up not being good enough. I know. That’s terrible. It truly is. But it is not selfish. It is diseased thinking and feeling.

Suicide is NOT selfish

So I think it’s irrational to call suicide selfish. That ignores the incredibly powerful instinct all living beings have to live. When a person is somehow able to overcome this most basic of instincts and takes their own life, they have so violated a basic law of nature that it is almost like defying gravity. If someone truly defied gravity, and levitated, you would not ask them how they summoned the willpower to do it, or what strength of character allowed it. Those questions wouldn’t even make sense. Instead you’d ask what special conditions allowed them to do this thing no one else can do. What did they have that others lack. Likewise, when someone overcomes the basic human instinct to survive, asking what flaw in their character allowed it is simply the wrong question. Instead you must ask what special condition existed that allowed them to overcome the life instinct and take their own life (or attempt to). But of course you don’t need to ask that question because we already know the name of that special condition: Major Depressive Disorder, code 296 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

What to do when you feel sad

clowns -- when you feel sad

Everybody has times when they feel blue, glum, sad, down-in-the-dumps, or bummed out. Many people refer to this as being “depressed,” but it’s not the same thing. Some depressed people, many of whom do not know they are depressed, may not feel sad at all, but rather angry, irritable, anxious, frustrated, numb, or other emotions. (If this is news to you, please take a minute right now, before you finish reading this article, and read up quickly on what depression actually is.) But just because it is common to feel sad once in a while, that doesn’t mean it’s fun. We still need to learn how to manage sadness properly, or it often grows into something worse.

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Depression and anxiety are not spiritual issues

hope -- depression and anxiety

image courtesy of

Depression is not sin. It is also not just “being sad.”

In a March 5 post, Amy Viets of the blog Depression’s Collateral Damage, wrote:

Depression is an illness so terrible and stark that no one would actively seek it as a means to grow in the spiritual life.  And with such a burden to bear, when priests and ministers talk about how a person can find relief if they only ask and turn it over to God, it makes my hair stand on end. It’s not that easy, that simple.  All a platitude like that serves to do is to make the depressed individual feel that for some reason he is not good enough, is not really letting go, is not trusting God. Often for the depressed person an even worse downward spiral occurs as a result.

Source: Depression’s Collateral Damage

Calling depression sin is damaging to the depressed person

I could not agree more. I highly encourage you to follow the source link above and read the post. Christians who say or suggest that depression is a spiritual issue do so largely out of ignorance, but that doesn’t make it any less damaging. I addressed this issue to a smaller extent in my post about my own struggles with depression and anxiety, and I often feel compelled to set people straight about it on Facebook when I see various comments made about it.

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