Mental Illness and Self-Blame

Throughout my life, I have struggled to try to understand why I have OCD and other mental health problems. The conclusion I return to again and again is: it must be my fault—it must be a character issue.

I am a researcher by heart and can read scientific journal articles that show that there are biological and environmental factors that contribute to mental illness (and I’ve read a ton), but that somehow doesn’t stop me from thinking and feeling “but in my case, maybe it’s actually my fault.”

When I began therapy, I learned about the strategies and techniques I can use to combat my mental illnesses. This reinforced to me that my mental illness was my fault.

My logic was: if I can DO something to fix this problem, I must have DONE something to cause it or NOT DONE something I should have and THAT caused it. If I had just been doing the right things in the first place, I wouldn’t have ended up mentally ill. If I have to do the work needed to recover, I must have not been working hard enough to prevent getting mentally ill in the first place.

But I recently gained some important insights:

  1. Although there are things we can do to lower our risk of developing a mental illness, we might develop one anyway. Sometimes it just happens. Just like washing your hands might help you not catch a cold but someone might sneeze by you and you get infected anyway.
    And often, we aren’t aware of what to do when it comes to mental illnesses because it isn’t intuitive and it isn’t taught (like we teach kids to wash their hands).
    What 7-year-old naturally knows to challenge cognitive distortions or do the opposite of an obsession? What teenager, when faced with anxiety knows to try meditation or breathing exercises? It’s not like I had a graduate degree in psychology or counseling as a kid.
    What adult naturally knows to do these any of things either? These things aren’t intuitive. You have to be taught them from someone who knows. And usually, we are not.


  1. just cause you can work on recovery from something doesn’t mean you caused it. If you get hit by a drunk driver and the crash breaks your leg, you have to do the physical therapy needed to recover, but that doesn’t mean it was your fault the other driver hit you. If you get a bacterial infection and have to take antibiotic and get lots of rest to heal from it, that doesn’t mean it was your fault you contracted the infection.

I realized my logic was flawed. I’m not sure why I always come back to self-blame about having a mental illness. Maybe it’s a control issue. It feels better when something is in your control, and if its your fault, that means you had some control. Probably there are multiple reasons we do this. I don’t know.

But what I do know (at least right now, in this moment of clarity) is that my mental illness is not my fault, and your mental illness is not your fault. We don’t choose for our brains to break and stop working right. But, just like any other part of the human body, it can and does happen to people. And thankfully, there is effective treatment available when this happens.

I hope that if you’re struggling with self-blame about having a mental illness that these insights can help you, too.


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