It Gets Better… Or Does It? – Dealing with Chronic Mental Illness

It gets better... or does it? graphic of a smiling sun, rainbow, and butterflies

On a fairly regular basis, I see messaging along the lines of “it gets better,” or some variation thereof. While the intention behind it is good, I’m not convinced that it’s useful, because it’s not necessarily true.

There’s a U.S.-based non-profit organization called It Gets Better that provides support to LGBTQ+ youth who are being bullied. In that case, there probably is reason to think that things would get better in time, as graduation would change the environment.

What if the setting isn’t a factor, though? When it comes to mental illness, there’s no possibility that you’ll ever be able to remove yourself from… well, yourself. Is there any validity to saying it will get better, or is it just patronizing, another form of toxic positivity?

When “it gets better” makes sense

“It gets better” makes more sense when it comes to intense surges of symptoms above and beyond whatever that individual experiences at their baseline. A panic attack will get better in the sense that the particular attack will abate; however, that can’t be extrapolated in the same way to the disorder as a whole. Similarly, intense emotional states won’t be sustained indefinitely at the same intensity simply because it’s the nature of emotions to ebb and flow.

It also makes sense if it’s coming from someone like a health professional who has an understanding of the course the illness tends to take, so they’re in a good position to say with some degree of certainty that will get better. What I’m not comfortable with is people who whip out the “it gets better” without having any actual reason to suspect that things really will get better.

The reality of chronic mental illness

I try to be a realist, and the reality is that some people’s illnesses don’t get better. Some people’s illnesses get worse as time goes on. Telling someone who’s in that boat that it will get better can just come across as platitudes.

It’s certainly possible that someone with a treatment-resistant illness could figure out new ways to compensate for some of the symptoms. They may also find new ways to have a sense of purpose. However, that doesn’t necessarily make things better – different, maybe, but not necessarily better.

Probably all of this depends to some extent on the temperament of the person involved. For some people, optimism and hope that things will get better are really important to maintain. And for people who do achieve some degree of remission between episodes of symptoms, it may also be useful to hang onto the idea that it will get better.

But I think that it’s important that we do acknowledge that it doesn’t always get better, and recognize that it’s not necessarily helpful to tell someone that it does when that’s just not something that’s realistic for them.

We can’t predict the future

In cognitive behavioural therapy, one of the common cognitive distortions is fortune-telling, which involves being sure a certain thing will happen in the future even when there’s no evidence to support that. “It gets better” predicts that someone’s future will head in a positive direction, and usually there’s no way of knowing that will be the case.

We can’t control the future, but we can be in the present and work on getting through each moment as it comes.

Do you think “it gets better” is something that gets tossed around too freely?

The post Toxic Positivity: What It Is and Why It’s Not Helpful is the hub for all things toxic positivity-related on Mental Health @ Home.

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47 thoughts on “It Gets Better… Or Does It? – Dealing with Chronic Mental Illness”

  1. When my partner and I went to share with my family on the mainland the my partner had terminal cancer, my partner and I talked about his plans. My father took me aside and angrily told me that I was being incredibly selfish to talk like that about my partner, and death. that I should be positive and think that he was going to be fine. Denial, I feel people who say that are in denial. The same with the person who says it will get better. The lack of understanding and compassion that people with mental illnesses have chronic illnesses and like any chronic illness it can flare up at any time sometimes the cause is known others not. I have tools and strategies I have been given found and practiced that help me. I also have insight, and that is a biggy for me to move forward. I can do all the things that lesson the risk of me having another ‘attack’ but there is no guarantee circumstances wont hit me.

  2. I agree with your context, neurological diseases, in a lot of cases will not get better. I think families that use that terminology when speaking of a loved one battling whatever it is, are trying to cling to any glimmer of hope. However, I do agree with its misuse. Great read!

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