Remember, Mental Illness Doesn’t Tell the Full Story

In the history of this world, no one has told more lies than the father of lies himself. But mental illness plays a close second.

Earlier this week, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor posted a video on Facebook, claiming she was alone in a hotel room in New Jersey, she was without support, and everyone she knew had abandoned her to struggle with the pain and desperation of mental illness. Her message, and her obvious distress, were difficult to watch. And her cry for help resounded with many. People were rightly concerned for her, and eventually people who know her and care for her were able to intervene and help her gain access to the help she needed.

When I saw O’Connor’s video and the response it produced, I was concerned too. But by then she had received help and was out of immediate danger. My lingering concern was over the consequences of her claims. Because there’s no way that video tells the full truth.

I know this because I have lived my whole life with the impact of serious mental illness on my family. I know firsthand how mental illness twists the truth. And I have seen how devastating the consequences can be when the perspective of a person with serious mental illness is accepted as guiding truth. I was grieved when I read this statement from singer Annie Lenox, who appeared to accept O’Connor’s claims of abandonment without question: “I realise that Sinead has some serious mental health issues, but she appears to be completely out on a limb and I’m concerned for her safety. Are there no close friends or family who could be with her to give her some loving support? It’s terrible to see her in such a vulnerable state.” This statement assumed two things: 1) O’Connor’s loved ones have the power to help her and 2) O’Connor’s perception of abandonment reflects the truth. It’s quite possible neither is true. And I keenly felt the insult to everyone who knows and loves Sinead O’Connor.

I don’t know the full story here; I don’t know more than anyone else who has read an article or two about this incident and O’Connor’s previous cries for help. But I do know what it’s like to love someone whose mental illness lies to her on a daily basis, yet who is left in charge of her own mental health care. Someone who believes everyone who wants to help her is trying to hurt her. Someone who leaves home, refuses help, then time and again needs rescue from the very people she rejected–whose power to help is limited. I am very familiar with the agonizing questions and the family arguments over when you’re helping and when you’re hurting. And I can only imagine what it’s like to navigate these challenges when the person you love has access to a captive audience of fans. From my own experience, I can tell you it is quite possible no one in O’Connor’s life knew where she was. Perhaps no one knew how to help until her video made it possible for them to find her. I can tell you mental illness is a liar. It never tells the full story.

I realize most people don’t know what it’s like to try to help a loved one with serious mental illness, in the context of a society that has removed, through legislation, nearly all the tools loved ones might possibly have used for intervention. I recognize that it’s natural to assume it’s easy to be there for someone who so obviously claims to want help. If you haven’t known the frustration of seeing someone reject treatment time and again, or leave home and hide on the streets, or engage in self-medication that accelerates an already precipitous downward spiral, it might not occur to you that families and other loved ones actually have very little power to help a person whose own brain feeds her lies on a daily basis.

But even if your knowledge here is limited, please consider this: A story told in the throes of symptomatic mental illness is never the full story. That’s the case whether we’re talking about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, an anxiety disorder, even a mild form of depression. One of the greatest sources of the pain and destruction of mental illness is in the ways it distorts truth. When we expect loved ones to intervene–without understanding what they have been through, what they have tried, how their hands are tied, and how this challenge has impaired their own functioning–we jump to judgmental and injurious conclusions. When we automatically believe a person with active symptoms of mental illness is giving us the whole picture, we behave out of tremendous ignorance–and ultimately we don’t help anyone. When you’re seeking to help, please consider that the loved ones may need as much support as anyone. Please hear their stories too.

12 Comments
  1. Maree Dee says:

    Amy, Thank you for giving a voice to the families. When we look at mental illness from one perspective, it doesn’t tell the entire truth. Many times families like our are willing to jump in, but we are either pushed away or left in the dark knowing what is going on. Your words were right on even though you do not know the full details. Thank you for speaking out.

    • Amy says:

      You’re welcome, Maree. Your family and mine represent thousands of others who have found ourselves powerless to help someone we love.

  2. Extremely well said. I’m going to ost this article on Facebook.

  3. Laurie A. Huske says:

    Powerful, and spot-on. Thank you Amy for sharing. I facilitate a monthly NAMI Family Support Group, and this is a topic that comes up every time. Family fears, sadness and frustration at trying to get help for someone they love with a mental illness, to have it all sabotaged by the illness, and that person’s perceptions. I am going to share this with our groups. Thank you for all you do.

  4. Marie VanderWyngaard says:

    You speak truth. Thank you for gently and honestly educating others who have not lived with a family member who has mental illness. He or she is often either unable or unwilling to comply with treatment and also may have their own “reality” (that can be quite twisted by the illness) which can actually be far from accurate. It is both devastating and heartbreaking when family members are rejected by the loved one with mental illness when they truly want to help yet are left powerless to do so.

  5. John says:

    You have eloquently put into words what I have believed and felt and experienced for so long…thank you.

  6. PJ Franklin says:

    This gave me new perspective on a friend with significant depression who continually distorts how she is being treated by others, including reports of abuse by caregivers that she cannot substantiate–caregivers we know and trust.

    • Amy says:

      I’m glad this was helpful, PJ. I hope your friend will come to a place of greater health and will be able to see a larger piece of the story.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.