Mental Illness and Intelligence

There’s the strangest misconception floating around the place that you can’t have a mental illness if you’re smart. Put that bluntly it seems obvious that it’s daft. But I’ve come across it more than once now, and often from within Mental Health Services, not just the general community. So I have conversations at times that go something like this:

Me: I’m really struggling at the moment.
Services: Okay, what’s going on?
Me: I’m under a lot of pressure and I’m falling apart. I need some help.
Services: So what are you experiencing?
*skips boring description of me on a really bad day – suicidal, paranoid, etc etc
Services: Well, you’re obviously intelligent and have a great deal of insight into your illness. So I don’t see what we can do for you.

That’s kinda stupid. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that being smart makes you less vulnerable to mental illness or suicide. Being able to spell my condition doesn’t mean I’m always a match for it. And insight is awesome, it really is. It gives you a chance to observe and make sense of what you’re experiencing, to plan ahead and learn to predict your condition, to work around it and play to your strengths. But it doesn’t actually take it away. And sometimes, especially when there’s a lot of chaos going on around me – things like relationship breakdown or homelessness, things get too much for me.

I’ve noticed the same dynamic played out with several of my friends who’ve found that in asking for help, being able to use the clinical terminology often excludes you from being able to access support. I wonder if this plays into the high rates of ‘burnout’ and suicide those in the helping professions experience? Where do they go to for help? Mental illness crosses all kinds of boundaries – cultural, socio-economic, level of education, you name it. Smart, educated and insightful people can still get overwhelmed and need a hand, and at times even, protection from the things that destroy human beings – despair, terror, self-loathing, anguish. Books, learning, money, fame, they don’t get you through these. What does help is compassion, simple kindness, and empathy.

3 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Intelligence

  1. Hope – absolutely! “You're intelligent” is pretty cold comfort when you're feeling alone and overwhelmed by mental illness.

    Warren – I hear you! When I was really ill and in a wheelchair, the weirdest experience was having some people talk to me real loud and slow… assumptions drive you nuts!


  2. I'm with you 100% on this Sarah, but there is also a flip side, if we allow people in general to know we have a mental illness they immediately 'dumb down' the conversation as if they are talking to a child.
    So often have I been having an intellectually based conversation with someone only to have the conversation stopped, changed or even told, 'oh, you wont understand this' just because the other person has been made aware of my illness.
    Talent, intelligence and genius do not only touch those who do not have a Mental Health problem.


  3. So very true Sarah. I am tired of hearing “your smart you will figure it out” Or ” good thing you are smart so you can deal with this”. My Intelligence or lack there of does not determine the out come of dealing with mental illness. We are all equal on that playing field.


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