What Not to Say to Someone With a Mental Illness, and Alternatives
October 2-8 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Here are some things you
probably shouldn’t say to someone struggling with a mental illness, and some alternatives to say instead.
1. “Just try to be positive. Positivity is key.” I can assure you that the large majority of people who have a mental illness, whether it be depression, anxiety, or a mood disorder, have tried to look on the bright side. They have tried to be positive and think happy thoughts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way. Usually,
thinking positively cannot beat a chemical imbalance in your brain. The thing is, mental illness is just that… an illness. It is not a frame of mind. It is not a negative attitude that can be fixed with some kumbaya. It is a true chemical imbalance that is no fault of their own. Telling them to be positive is kind of like telling them they’re being negative. That is the last thing someone fighting a mental illness needs to hear. They’re doing the best they can.
2. “Just get off of your antidepressant/birth control pill/whatever crap you’re taking and you’ll feel so much better.” This is a problem for multiple reasons. The first being that everyone is different. While an antidepressant might not have worked for you and may have made your situation worse, that same antidepressant can be lifesaving and life-changing for someone else. While a birth control pill may have contributed to your depression or caused you other problems, that same pill may be helping another woman. Maybe you ditched your antidepressants and became one with nature and everything became great. And we’re happy for you, seriously. But if some of us decide to go off our antidepressant, it might not end in the same great way it did for you. It may end up with a trip to the emergency room. Some of us need these medications to function and to stay alive.
The second problem with this is that by telling people they should get off their medication, you’re making them feel ashamed for needing their medication. You’re making them feel like they’re doing something wrong by being on one of those medications. And they need to know they’re not in the wrong at all and they deserve to use whatever tools they can to fight this. They also need to know that taking medication does not make them weak.
3. “Yeah I’ve had similar problems, I just didn’t let them control me.” If you had similar problems and were able to just not let them control you, then your problems probably aren’t so similar. Because that’s the thing about mental illness. It does try to control you. It wraps onto your every thought, your every movement, your every breath. It affects every day, every relationship, and every word that comes out of your mouth. Recovering from mental illness is not as simple as just not letting it control you. If it was like that, most people would be in recovery. People with mental illness are not just allowing their illness to control them. They are not choosing to be taken down by this monster. They have no choice, but they’re doing their best to get
through every day.
4. “There are children starving in Africa, think about how good you have it.” Yes… Yes… They are aware of the children starving in Africa. It hurts them deeply that children are starving, and they are very grateful they have a roof over their head and a full pantry. However, that does not magically take away their debilitating mental illness. It also makes them feel like their pain is invalid, and that they don’t have a right to be struggling.
5. “Have you tried exercise or eating healthier?” Yes, it is true exercise or healthy eating won’t make things worse. Mental illness or no mental illness, living a healthy lifestyle is always a good idea. However, this isn’t what someone who is struggling wants to hear from a supportive friend. While I’m sure this suggestion comes from good intentions, when someone is on the brink of suicide, exercise is not
going to fix that, and hearing that suggestion might make them feel like you think their problem is trivial. It also might make them blame themselves for not being active enough or being a healthy eater.
6. “You seem great, are you cured?” Firstly, mental illness has no cure, and it is something that will likely always linger in the background, no matter how far into recovery a person is. A person may be doing great, but for example, someone with bipolar disorder will always have bipolar disorder. They might be in a great place where they have a lot of control over their illness and it’s not such a factor for them at the moment, but it isn’t something that will ever completely go away. Secondly, people with mental illness tend to get pretty good at a little thing called acting. Someone can be a complete wreck at home and put on a mask when they go outside. You never know what is happening behind closed doors.
Instead try these…
1.“I’m here for you.” Just a simple “I’m here for you” to let them know you care and that they aren’t alone, can mean a million words. Let them know you aren’t going anywhere.
2. “Is there anything I can do?” The answer will usually be no, but you never know. Maybe they want some company or someone to come do their errands with them. Just offering the knowledge that you’re willing to help is helpful in itself.
3. “You mean so much to me.” It is so easy to feel isolated and worthless when dealing with a mental illness. Telling a friend how much they mean to you can really put a smile on their face because sometimes they forget.
4. “It’s not your fault.” Remind them they aren’t choosing to feel this way. Remind them mental illness is a real and ugly monster and that they’re a badass for living with it every day.
5. “That is so crappy.” Just letting them know you sympathize with them and validating what they’re feeling can make a difference. Let them know they aren’t overreacting and what they’re going through is really difficult.
6. “You are brave.” Remind them what a badass they are for living every day with this illness. They may not have a choice, but they are still here, and you are grateful you get to have them in your life.