How to escape the ‘ill’ and become mentally brilliant

Graffiti piece on Granville Street bridgeWritten by Dave Ursillo

In spite of my secretive and quiet history of anxiety and depression, I don’t consider myself “mentally ill,” and you shouldn’t, either.

On the one hand, you remind yourself that names, titles and labels ought not really matter in the grand scheme of things. If anything, our society invests far too much time and attention into such labels like job title. However, there’s a clearly defined negative social stigma attached to the “mentally ill” title. And it’s easy to see why.

Mentally ill is how we describe psychopaths, murderers and pedophiles. Mentally ill is how we refer to those who are beyond hope, beyond the ability to recover or capability to get any better. The “mentally ill” tag places a forever and permanent scarlet letter upon someone who — whether or not one is diagnosed with a lifelong illness, or mental-emotional condition — is almost always capable of living a functional and happy life among others in society.

Of course, we’re speaking in general terms here. But with what modern scientific evidence proves, even something as simple and seemingly trivial as how we refer to ourselves by title has a significant conscious and subconscious impact upon how we perceive ourselves; how others perceive us; our physical health and immune system stamina; our perceptions of our limitations and abilities to achieve dreams, goals and successes.

From now on, you’re no longer mentally ill. You’re mentally brilliant. Simply brilliant.

Allow me to dissect my own personal history as an example for you.

I have experienced depression a small handful of times, and like many others can attest, my bouts have been sparked form heartbreak and been exaggerated by other living conditions that prolonged and exacerbated my severe sadness, self-doubt, and so on. When I was younger, I believed that I “cared to a fault.” I attributed my tendency to feel depressed and recurring feelings of social anxiety to be examples of me being different, an outcast, and at a perpetual disadvantage to my peers who didn’t visibly seem to deal with the same issues.

After years of intense introspection, reflection, learning and growth, I now understand that my “caring to a fault” mentality is not a victimizing symptom of my personality, but a unique gift: my ability to care affords me a unique privilege and special ability to invest my passion, care, love, and attention to great causes.

I passionately fundraise for charities and nonprofit organizations; I am often sought out by friends in need of listening ears to help them work through issues and problems in their lives; I invest my particular sensitivity to others’ feelings, emotions, and words in ways that positively impact them and often write my learning experiences on my blog so others across the world can benefit, too.

I used to dislike that I was an introverted personality.

Today, I am lucky enough to be more of a “listener” and “observer” than a “talker” in public and social settings — it allows me to learn so much about people, behaviors, motivations, body language and so on. Being this observant has benefited my learning about this world and its peoples in incredible ways and has absolutely benefited my inspirational writing: guiding others to examine their own behaviors and motivations in order to live healthier and happier lives.

For every perceived “fault” that characterizes our personalities, there is an exact “opposite” that can be achieved and harnessed as a unique strength. Caring to a fault? I’m lucky to care so much. Anxious, nervous, quiet in social settings? It affords me the privilege to learn in ways that I’d never otherwise be able.

Mentally ill? Not a chance.

Mentally brilliant? If you ask me, I’d say that’s exactly what you are.


Dave Ursillo is a professional writer and life-explorer at Follow him on Facebook.


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  • NB

    I sure like the words mentally brilliant instead of mentally ill. Mental illness is just coming out of the closet. It really dosen’t matter what words you use. I think this website is doing a very good job of explaining the different types of mental illness.

  • Trish

    Thank you NB for your kind words. I am so glad that you are learning from the site.

  • Shelley

    Kudos to your way of thinking Dave that mentally ill should be called mentally brilliant instead. Did that help you in your personal life to discard the label you claimed?

    Medical and legal authorities consider mental illness a disease. It may not be a disease of the physical body but even then I think this is a gray area as I have had many physical repercussions to my mental illness.

    So let’s take AIDS/HIV as as example. Is there not a social stigma associated with this disease related to gays and druggies? Yet would you consider calling people with AIDS/HIV physically brilliant? No. You would consider people with aids to have a disease, not a label.

    I don’t think the solution to the problems of social stigma, the way we absorb labels as our truth, and how the media portrays mental illness, is to discard the label mentally ill and replace it with mentally brilliant (which by the way, the “brilliance” of people who are mentally ill has other connotations as it has been romanticized by the media… think A Beautiful Mind). I think the problems to be addressed here is educating society on the truth about mental illness from the people who are living it, exposing the stigma and meeting it head-on through awareness, and publicizing how for a lot of people it is a disease that they courageously learn to live with to the betterment of society.

    • Dave Ursillo

      Hey Shelley,

      The point here is not to just take a scientific fact and make pretend to turn it on its ear, as with your hypothetical regarding AIDS and physically brilliant. It’s also not to take an irreversible illness and pretend that it’s something great and grand. 🙂 Let’s remember, this piece on being “mentally ill” is not a catch all for every possible illness, but is specific to depression.

      Even with my own history of depressive symptoms and anxiety, I have never and will never consider myself mentally ill, because I both don’t believe I *am* mentally ill and because I refused to be held back by believing it was an incurable disease that would plague me for my entire life — far beyond any concerns over a social stigma.

      I agree that education on the nature of mental-emotional illnesses and disorders is a fantastic way to raise awareness and to help people. On the flip side, when we’re discussing “the facts,” we need to also remember that something is “scientifically-proven fact” until it is shown to perhaps be untrue after all. Let’s remember that only recently in history, homosexuality was considered a “mental disease” that was cruelly and inhumanely “treated” with lobotomy. This was once a “scientifically proven fact” that our society, thankfully, came to outgrow.

      The only question that this entire piece should arouse in you, the reader, is: “If I consider myself as ‘mentally ill’, will that label/association/assumption about the irreversible nature of my mental/emotional condition help me or hold me back?”

      In many regards, *perception* dictates *reality*. Have you ever come across someone who often mentions “Murphy’s Law,” that the “worst possible thing will happen at the worst possible time”? Well, is this really an indisputable “law” or something that someone who believes it often sees in their day to day lives *because* they believe it? I’d bank on the latter!

      This is less rhetorical and is now increasingly based on scientific proof, evidenced by things “the placebo effect.” I would encourage all to read THE BIOLOGY OF BELIEF by Bruce Lipton which articulates the incredible power of belief as the means to alleviate pain, physical aliments and mental-emotional conditions.

      All my best!


      • Sara

        I really enjoyed your post, and I think this is a really great response to the issues that Shelley raised here.

        I have a further point I would like to bring up – often in our lives, people take words for granted. But words are the only way we are able to make sense of experiences, because we think with our words and we communicate with our words. Sure we communicate physically and so on, but that person interprets that experience, with their words. So the words that we use are incredibly important because they shape our entire lives and everything that we do.

        One thing I find particularly exasperating is the way people refer to them selves, not only as “mentally ill” but by saying things such as “I’m Schizophrenic” or “I’m Bipolar”. These are simple things to say, but what they communicate is that I – the self, the identity, is an illness. I never say “I’m Bipolar”. I say “I have Bipolar Disorder” because I possess it. It does not possess me.

        We cannot overcome illness if we allow IT to take over our US – of course, what it does is infiltrate identity and I will be the first to admit that this is far far easier said than done.


  • Dave Ursillo

    Hey folks!

    Let’s use this experiment to also exhibit a major point:

  • Paul

    First off, very nice site Trish! I have enjoyed reading your posts and others.

    Dave, I can relate to your post (here and on your site) and I agree with the stigma around mental illness but something has to change as more and more people have or develop mental illnesses these days. Also, it is more than just giving it a new label. I take your suggested name change as more of an attitude shift. However, the facts still remain the same about being mentally ill.

    Until recently, I never thought of myself as mentally ill or mentally unhealthy. But the fact that my anxiety requires me to be on medication to function on common everyday tasks made me rethink this. I would prefer to say that I suffer from a mental illness. “Having” to me is better than “being”.

    It’s been several years for me and I have been on and off my medications. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t recover as you have. I went almost a full year without any medication to find myself in a situation that brought it all back.

    In a lifetime, all people suffer from depression, anxiety, and fear. I would not categorize these isolated episodes as mental illnesses and these people should not consider themselves “mentally ill”. What about those who suffer for years? I am one of those people and I can’t just throw away their medication and hope to be able to ride it out.

    Thank you again for your posts. It is always good to hear recovery stories.

  • eva

    I have read with interest the comments posted following Dave’s post about being “mentally brilliant”.
    While I concur that labels, tend to put people into categories, and that there continues to be a stigma attached to being “mentally ill”, the term “mentally brilliant” does the same.
    In fact, as a mental health practitioner, I feel that if someone labelled themselves as mentally “brilliant” my first thought would be that suggests a sense of superiority. While I completely agree that it takes patience, resourcefulness, strength, resilience and many other qualities to either heal or learn to live with a mental health “illness”, it does not necessarily make one “brilliant”. I also do not tend to view the people that I know who are dealing with depression, anxiety, bi polar disorder, etc. as “ill”. I see it as a challenge, for sure, such as heart disease, diabetes, a bum knee..etc. but not necessarily as being sick. Being ill or sick also implies that one will get better and no longer ill. That, unfortunately is not always the case. I prefer to see people as just who they are, but that they are dealing with whatever it might be. It does not define who they are, necessarily. What Shelly said resonated with me as one of my first thoughts was the movie “A Beautiful Mind” as well. Sure, the person was “brilliant” but that was due to his intelligence.
    There is no right or wrong answer. This is a great discussion. I wish that we didn’t have to have it because that would mean that those who are facing mental health challenges would not be stigmatized.

  • eva

    Just an observation……the word “ill” is in “brilliant”. Dave I understand and respect your perspective and the way you have reframed your life experience. Whatever works for people on their journey is what is best for them, no judgement.

  • Shelley

    Hi Dave. When I read your post I see you suggesting we see people who are mentally ill as something more than what society tells us. That the label keeps us sick because of the way society treats us as well as our own beliefs about the label. The funny thing is when I originally became sick some years ago and was at my worst in terms of the illness, I didn’t consider myself mentally ill. I didn’t want to. I was going to get better. I was going to be cured. I worked on that premise for years trying every single inner work exercise I could find, self-help books, psychological books, alternative therapy, diet, psychotherapy, and allopathic medicine figuring this time it would be the one… the one exercise, the one pill, the one remedy, the one book that would bring me back to being normal again (not mentally ill). Yeah, well, that didn’t work out so well. I learned a lot and I am grateful for that but what it basically came down to was accepting myself, just as I am, and that’s mentally ill. Maybe not mentally ill as society defines it… it doesn’t really matter to me what it’s called and when I talk to people who I have met who have lived with mental illness for years and years they don’t really care either. I am freed by the label and do you want to know why? Well I’m going to tell you (like you have choice 😉 )… because what it means is I have limits and now I can embrace those limits and work with them–I am not talking about the limits others place on me because I wouldn’t stand for that. I am talking about the limits I have observed in myself and that are now there because I have mental illness. I am no longer stuck, waiting for those limits to be cured either by time, personal development or meds. I can live my life again. I having some to offer again and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I am in recovery and that may end in remission or cured or none of the above but it doesn’t really matter to me because what is important to me now is how I spend my moments NOW and how the only person that can bring me down is me.

    I read this great quote today (funnily enough on a web site of some one who considers herself to have mental illness): “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about dancing in the rain.”

    Thanks Dave for your post and your comments because it has invited me to remember once again how much I like to dance. 🙂

  • Germaine Vizena

    Enjoyable read, thanks

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