What does mental illness look like?

When you think of someone with a mental illness, what comes to mind? Is it a bedraggled homeless person in the street? Is it someone wearing a straight jacket screaming bloody murder in a padded cell? Is it someone who goes on a shooting spree at a high school? If that’s the case, then you’d be wrong.

What if I told you that someone with mental illness is more likely to be your neighbour whose kid plays with your own? What if I told you that your barista who remembers your complicated coffee order had schizophrenia? What if I told you that your cousin has bipolar disorder?

Movies, news outlets, and other media have conditioned us to think about the “mentally ill” in very specific ways. As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, I often think about what the public thinks mental illness looks like. I’ve spoken in the past about how I’ve been told by multiple doctors that I don’t look like someone with a serious mental illness.

However, more recently I’ve been thinking about social media and how we curate our lives. The photos I post to Instagram and Facebook are very specific moments in time and create a version of my life that isn’t necessarily reflective of reality. They are carefully chosen moments in time that I want people to see. From the outside, you would never think that I have a serious mental illness that has incapacitated me for the past two years. So, today I’m lifting the veil and revealing what was behind that photo I shared.

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This is my husband and me Christmas 2014. At this point I was off of work for three months because of my mental illness. We had traveled from Montreal to Toronto to spend time with our respective families. I spent a large majority of this time racked with anxiety. I felt so guilty having to excuse myself from situations to go and sleep because the anxiety had completely wiped me out.

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This is my husband and me in February 2015 at the premiere of the Clara’s Big Ride documentary. I was one of the subjects chosen to speak about my mental illness for the film. A few days prior to this photo being taken, I was informed by HR that my job would be posted and they needed to take my work cell phone back. I was so petrified that I was being replaced at work I decided to return instead of continuing my sick leave and taking care of myself.


This is a selfie I took while riding a shuttle between university campuses. I was back at work (I work in media relations for a local university) and I was helping a film crew scout locations for a movie they were hoping to shoot in the summer. I was miserable at work and was hanging on by a thread. I had just started taking Lithium and was dealing with horrible side effects. But doesn’t my hair look awesome?

2015-05-30 12.37.46-2This was a selfie I took with my sister downtown Toronto May 2015. I was only in Toronto because my husband was presenting at a conference and I was so suicidal that he was afraid of leaving me alone for the weekend. A few days prior to this photo being taken, my boss had called HR because of my odd behaviour at work and I was forced to go back onto disability. Not exactly the picture perfect scenario.

2015-08-02 17.58.38I’m going to say something that you’re not really allowed to say because it sounds like I’m bragging BUT I really like this selfie of me. I was extremely depressed when it was taken. It was the summer and I was in the middle of an out-patient hospital program. Lithium was making me extremely sick and I had been suicidal on-and-off. I was also struggling with thoughts of self-harm. I took the picture to show off my red lipstick that I had just bought in an attempt to make myself feel better. The lipstick looks great, but I felt like shit.
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This photo was taken only a couple of months ago at a book signing event with Clara Hughes. You wouldn’t know from my smiling face but the crowd of people at the event had caused me a massive anxiety attack. It was so bad that I thought I was going to have to leave before I could hear Clara talk.

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Finally, this photo was taken only a few weeks ago during Thanksgiving. My husband and I were all dressed up to go to a family dinner. I’m fairly certain that before this photo was taken I hadn’t showered in a few days. I was dreading the thought of going out because I was so depressed. Instead of bailing, I put on my mask and took a family photo with our new kitten.

I hope by telling the stories behind each of these photos, I have helped you rethink what mental illness looks like and how we choose to portray our lives on the internet. The next time you see a smiling selfie and think about how happy that person looks, remember there’s more than what meets the eye behind that photo.

9 thoughts on “What does mental illness look like?

  1. Found your blog just now through Bipolar blogging network. I have bipolar I. This is a fantastic post! I know that feeling to put on a happy face. It is so daunting and I am always exhausted and withdrawn afterwards. You have awesome concrete examples here that someone can look fine and in control on the outside and be suffering deeply.


  2. I think everyone has a “public” face. But people with mental illness have to practice their facade more. We have to become so darned good at it that we ourselves don’t even know what we’re hiding sometimes.

    A few years ago I was planning my suicide, and was en route to carry it out. As my last stop, I went into the mental hospital where I’d been treated several times, to drop off a thank-you note apologising for not living up to their expectations and saying goodbye. Like many who have decided on suicide, I was feeling calm and determined, but neither sad nor happy. Just blank, preparing for what had to be done.

    While I was writing the note in a waiting room, my psychotherapist walked by (Damn!) and asked how I was doing. I answered that I was doing fine.

    Thanks to police intervention shortly after that, I survived the attempt. But the psychotherapist was so angry at me for lying that she dropped me as a client.

    I could not help what I said nor the smile I said it with. I had been doing it for so many years, it was hard to act the way I was really feeling. To intimate anything else would have derailed me from my important task.

    Nothing has changed since then. Unless I tell them, no one has a clue how seriously disabled I really am. I keep getting asked to do things (leadership stuff, lobbying stuff, volunteer and charitable stuff, etc) that people think I can do because I *appear* so capable in the snapshot moments of my life they see. It’s very hard to say no, but I must, often making up hollow excuses. If I don’t, my mania will be triggered, and soon everything I commit to will fall apart in my overwhelmed state. (I’ve had mania most of 2015 so far, for exactly that reason.)

    And it has made my treatment very difficult. How can I go against my lifetime of habit to present myself to my psychiatrist the way I really am at that moment? If I do, I feel like a fake, a whiner, weak. How should I look, anyway? Will she see through it? Will she dismiss my words as over reacting to life events? Would she be correct – am I not really sick after all?

    I wish I could lose my mask, but my mask is me.


  3. I am so glad you wrote this post. It’s a great idea (I’d love to borrow the idea if I may with a link back to your fabulous blog and to this specific post). And I so get it. We don’t have to look haggard and unable to stand in order to be mentally ill. I have had psychologists basically tell me I don’t need anymore counselling because “You’re doing fine,” just because I can smile my way through therapy. I’m thinking that if these people are professionals, wouldn’t they get that my smile is a plastic one? And btw, yes, that selfie of you is amazing. I had noticed it from your twitter pic, and always thought (and still think) how gorgeous you are. So there you have it folks. Mentally ill people come in all shapes and sizes and can pull off red hot lipstick. I simply adore your writing.


  4. This is another excellent post! You are very talented! I live in Oklahoma and we have had a recent tragedy in Stillwater. The girl who killed 4 and injured several more had undiagnosed Bipolar I. To look at her you would never know, like you were saying. We all need to have compassion and think the best of people and not the worst. The world would be a much better place if we did this.


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