Is Mental Illness More of a Reason or an Excuse?

Ways mental illness can be a reason or an excuse

This post was inspired by a recent post by a fellow blogger about the psychology behind excuses. I left a comment about distinguishing between reasons and excuses, and I thought the idea was worth some further expansion.

Defining reasons & excuses

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines reason as “a statement or fact that explains why something is the way it is, why someone does, thinks, or says something, or why someone behaves a certain way.”

Google Dictionary defines an excuse as “a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense.”

The difference

The differences may be subtle, but I think they’re actually really important. The word excuse carries with it a lot of negative overtones. It sounds like an attempt to get out of something that you really should be doing but just don’t want to.

It seems like people with limited knowledge about mental illness or other invisible disabilities often have a hard time grasping why we can’t do something because of our illness. As a result, they may think we’re being lazy or making excuses if we call in sick or are unable to work due to our illnesses. This is a very different kettle of fish from what I would consider a reason – recognizing that our illness is causing problems for us, and proactively making decisions about what choices will be best for our mental health.

Mental illness can also twist our own thinking so that we start limiting ourselves with excuses but justifying those limits as being bona fide reasons. Depression might make showering really, really hard, and once a week is about all that’s manageable. But maybe depression starts to become an excuse if it’s used as justification to quit trying altogether. Sure, maybe I’ll reconsider next month, depending on how things are going, you know… It can be a tricky balance to find. For me it comes down to making an effort. Maybe I’ll try and then give up today, tomorrow, and the next day, but if I try and get it done the day after that, that’s not about excuses.

Acceptance vs. disempowerment

The way I see it, excuses are about running away. Reasons are about acceptance of what is, and figuring out how to do the best we can given realistic constraints. Excuses look for ways not to try, and reasons are the opposite. Relying on excuses is disempowering, while acknowledging reasons can be very empowering. Excuses show a lack of insight, while reasons demonstrate that we do have insight into our illness.

If I’m able to accept that my mental illness affects me in certain ways, I can work on managing potential consequences, whereas non-acceptance can make it hard to target the right things. I know that I sometimes experience irritability as a symptom of my depression. I’m also aware that I don’t have a lot of control over the behaviours that it can produce, and I recognize that it’s not a good situation for myself or those around me. Rather than putting myself into situations where I’m likely to behaviourally act out, and then relying on my mental illness as an excuse, I know that that particular symptom is a reason for that kind of behaviour, so I try very hard not to put myself in situations that are likely to exacerbate the irritability. By accepting that reason, I’m reducing the likelihood of having to try to use my illness as an excuse.

What do you think? Is there a difference between reasons and excuses when it comes to how we handle mental illness?

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

21 thoughts on “Is Mental Illness More of a Reason or an Excuse?”

  1. I think there are some stark differences personally. To me? The reason (factual basis) for my own mental illness is a combination of genetics (familial trait) plus nuture (patterns of behavior which exacerbate the imbalance in the chemistry or whatever it is that makes my brain function different from ‘normal’ people). Those are the REASONS. The excuses (blame, guilt, whatever) are not factual. They are what I’ve used to hide behind (sometimes), and what I observe others who suffer with mental problems, to use as reasons for their behavior or lack of conscience (morals) etc. Some blame the mental illness for their poor choices, which may have some factual basis; BUT until they turn and face the fact that they are in control of themselves, regardless of what mental illness they suffer with; they’re still making excuses for themselves. In my opinion.

    Interesting question! 🙂

  2. Yes, there are definitely reasons and excuses. They are often mixed or maybe not. What may seem as an excuse to someone who never suffered from a mental health condition, may be a legitimate reason to not do something or to act a certain way.

  3. I often battle my excuses because I feel they come from my anxiety. If I don’t want to go work out it’s because I’m anxious about going to the gym. If I don’t want to go to that event it’s because I’m anxious about being around a group of strangers. It’s hard for me to distinguish between what’s an excuse and what’s a legitimate reason. I find myself searching for justification for my choices frequently because I wonder if I’m just not working hard enough to challenge anxiety. It might be helpful for me to consider the difference b/w excuses and reasons. Thanks for bringing up this topic!

  4. Had to share! I’ve had family not understand that I can’t just control my behavior. I’ve even been referred to as a brat (hence my blog name). They also don’t think mental illness is real. On the other side of the coin, I realized I had to make the choices to get better (meds, therapy, etc.) to help my emotions & behaviors improve.

      1. Agreed! I watched a video on Youtube of this man ranting & raving that mental illness wasn’t real except schizo phrenia. Then going off about how his ex was bipolar & she’d use it as an excuse to be “crazy” & cheat. (his words)

  5. artandhealingheart

    When I was keeping regular therapy appointments, my counselor kept calling me out on just how often I run when I get scared. I was the queen of excuses to get out of things that flared anxiety. I still do it but now I’m learning to be more honest in my reasoning and on occasion when my only reason to not do something is am afraid , I make plans anyway and make myself. It’s so hard but it does reap good things.

      1. artandhealingheart

        I just wanna throw out there- I LOVE your blog. Do you work on it fulltime? Your content is amazing

  6. This is a great post! I have often described bipolar disorder as the reason behind some of my behaviors, but I have NEVER used it as an excuse. So important that you have made this distinction between the two. I also really liked how you brought in the term ‘justification’. In my world, bad behavior can never be justified by my bipolar. Once that I realize I am engaging in a negative or risky behavior, it is my responsibility to correct or manage it.

    Great insight! Thanks again!

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