This is What it Looks Like to Live with Mental Illness


Until you’ve lived with mental illness, you can’t really imagine what it’s like. It’s hard to explain to others why, exactly, you are distracted, depressed or anxious with no discernible cause. Receiving a diagnosis can bring both relief and disappointment. You’re happy to finally have the words to explain what you’re experiencing, but at the same time, you know that things may never return to “normal.”

It’s a lot more complicated than even the medical terms can explain. Michelle Ruano, 18, demystifies the experience by partnering with some of her peers living with mental illness and drawing what it’s like for them to navigate daily life. Below is some of her artwork, coupled with words from the people whose experiences she tries to bring to visual life.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is complicated. I’ll be like doing work in class and a second later I’ll be thinking about poodles riding a tricycle or something. I like to go somewhere quiet and just try to focus, but it’s something I can’t really control. People just think people with ADHD don’t want to pay attention, like it’s just an excuse not to do certain things. It’s annoying to hear people talk like that, since it’s an actual thing I live with, and it’s not easy. – Alejandro, 17


I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I get panic attacks, but they’re not like hyperventilating or anything. It’s more like everything just seems like too much at once and then I get super irritable, or I want to go away — like I can’t deal with anything anymore. That happens like all of the time in class, and it impacts the way that I interact with my friends. Depression, for me, is more like the absence of feeling things, like a lot of things that I’ll get super happy about, I don’t get happy about anymore. Or it just feels like a lot of nothingness all at once, and that’s very overwhelming. It’s not who I am but it is a part of me. – Anna, 17

Depression and Social Anxiety Disorder

Two years ago I was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder. Depression is like if someone were to constantly weigh you down while social anxiety, it’s like the uninvited guests at a party that just comes out of nowhere. My social anxiety often makes me feel trapped even if I’m somewhere with a lot of people — especially if I’m somewhere with a lot of people. The two often intertwine with each other. My depression makes me feel bad about getting left out but my social anxiety doesn’t want me to go in the first place because I might do something to embarrass myself or I’m just too nervous to talk to other people, even if they’re my friends. – Michelle, 18

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