10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone With a Mental Illness
This piece was written by Jamie Berube a Thought Catalog contributor.
One of my fears in talking about my mental health condition is knowing that some people might treat me differently because of it. The thought of someone interacting with me in a way that was shaped by their own personal prejudices or ideas about what a person with a mental illness looks like is hard for me — mainly because I once maintained similar prejudices and uninformed notions about what mental illness meant and looked like, too. In my ignorance, I assumed you could really only be clinically depressed if you lost your job or family or had a disease like cancer. I assumed schizophrenia was reserved for the “real crazies” who “hear voices” and “see things” and thought you could only have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if you were a war veteran, rape victim or had survived something catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina or the 9/11 terrorists attacks. And if your experience didn’t fit in one of those boxes, it would be hard to convince me you were struggling from something with a clinical diagnosis.
But then a wild, terrible, chaotic and strangely beautiful thing happened to me — something that I liken to having your ship wrecked by the destructive force of a rogue wave that you didn’t see coming, nor received any warning about while out at sea. I was diagnosed with a mental illness. Post-traumatic stress disorder, to be exact, due to the tragic death of my father at a young age and a childhood of abuse and neglect. I knew I would never again look at or view mental illness in the same way when this happened. And I also knew by admission of my diagnosis, I, in turn, would never be looked at the same way even by those I love dearly. This scared me and made me want to hide from everybody in my life. But I realized I can’t remove the ignorance and misinformation that has surrounded the mental health conversation in our country and within my own generation. What I can do, however, is help those who don’t know very much about it learn to see it as something that does not make someone any less of a person, or “different” in the ways one might assume.
It is very easy to allow our opinions to be guided by our prejudices and ignorance — things we may not be aware have clouded our perceptions. And these opinions often dictate how we treat those who struggle. One of the most significant and potentially detrimental parts of this treatment is in how we talk to those who have mental illness. Our words have the power to hurt and destroy or help and heal, and even neutral words may be misconstrued and come across as belittling when the person struggling is in a vulnerable place. Furthermore, the words we choose to use can also perpetuate the negative, toxic stigmas around mental health issues, and these stigmas can stifle truth and imprison people into believing the lie that they are not like everyone else, never will be and have nothing good to offer.
For this reason, it’s crucial to educate yourself about what things to say or not say. It is as serious as the difference between healing and hurting.
Here are 10 examples of things you should not say to someone struggling with a mental health condition:
1. “It could be worse.”
This is true. For every single human being alive right now. Lost your job and your family and wrecked your car? Well, so-and-so did too and was diagnosed with cancer and accidentally ran over their cat. So don’t be sad because that didn’t happen to you and it could have.
See what I’m getting at here?
The intention behind these words is not what I question, it’s the thought process behind it (if there is one at all). Because other people’s problems are worse than mine does not make my own easier to live with. And the idea that I am complaining when “there are people who have it so much harder” than me, makes me feel guilty for feeling anything in the first place.
2. “It’s just a season of life that we all go through.”
We all go through this? Does that mean you already have? So you know what it feels like to not be able to trust your own mind and not want to get out of bed or be around people or take meds that make you feel weird sometimes? You know how it feels to believe your life maybe isn’t worth living? If so, tell me more about that… because maybe you know a way to get through it that I haven’t already thought about.
3. “You need to let it go.”
Wait, I have the power to let this go and be better? My doctor never told me that! OK, I will just let it go… now how exactly does one do that? Do I close my eyes? Write my feelings on a piece of paper of throw it into the ocean? Do a dance?
No really, I would love to know how exactly anybody can “let go” of a mental illness so if you have ever advocated for this advice, I’d love to be enlightened.
4. “Go treat yourself and take your mind off it!”
AKA: Go self-medicate your pain! Numb your feelings so you don’t feel them anymore! And if they come back, well, self-medicate some more!
This is always terrible advice.
5. “You have so much to be happy about, why can’t you just focus on those things?”
This drives me “crazy.” Those who struggle with a mental health issue are not “ungrateful” or “not thankful for what they have.” This is because mental illnesses such as depression are not about attitude. They’re about a brain disorder. Depression, for example, makes it hard to feel any pleasure. There is actually a scientific term for it, anhedonia — which literally means the inability to feel pleasure. So while thankfulness and gratitude are good things, they are not cures for mental ailments.
Though I certainly wish they were.
6. “But you always seem so happy, how could you be struggling so much?”
Yes, and that is because I am terrified of what people will think if they know what feelings I have deep down inside and what is going on in my head. For me, wearing a mask is easier than being real. Just because I smile and laugh a lot and tell stupid jokes doesn’t mean I am not internally struggling.
7. “If God leads you to it, He will lead you through it.”
When advice or statements about someone’s mental state is cloaked in flowery, cliché religious language of the sort, I believe people will be less likely to take you seriously. The truth is comments like this make many people with mental illness feel ashamed or like God, or the universe in general, is punishing them for something they did wrong. I believe it’s not helpful to chalk up someone’s mental health concerns to being a part of “God’s plan.” For someone who may be struggling with their faith or spirituality, this might actually push them further away.
8. “It’s the devil that’s doing this to you.”
I don’t intend to specifically attack the attempts at encouragement that come from those who go to church and believe in God (as I do), but sometimes the advice seems really presumptuous and hyperbolic and off-base. Like telling someone the devil is the cause of their problems. I do not think the intention is bad, but ultimately, it all boils down to this: how will telling someone the devil is wreaking havoc in their life make them feel better? The answer is it probably won’t. It doesn’t make the pain go away or hurt any less.
9. “You need a new hobby.”
Great idea. Because despite how draining my emotions are and the symptoms of my condition can be at times, I totally have the energy to start knitting or playing the guitar. Who knew getting over a mental illness could be so easy?
Remember: it is difficult for some people struggling to feel pleasure, even in things they once did before. Telling them what they “need” to do likely won’t help. They probably have heard it before from someone else.
10. “It’s because you’re on medication, you should stop taking those pills.”
This statement is the most difficult for me to address because it makes me the angriest. The subject of medication and mental health is one that is as complex and dynamic as it is misunderstood and stigmatized. I have yet to tackle this giant in a longer post, but have plans on doing so. For now, though, please understand if you have ever shamed someone or criticized or questioned someone’s use of medication for mental illness, you have likely contributed to their inner turmoil and angst. Unless you are someone’s doctor, spouse, parent or maybe a close enough best friend, you have no right to know or try and modify someone’s medication usage. The hard truth is, despite what you see in the news about people who abuse pain killers and barbiturates — of which there are millions — there are people who literally cannot get through the day without taking medicine, and would not be alive right now without it. Like anything, it can be abused. And yes, doctors do overprescribe sometimes. But to think that someone’s mental health condition can be reduced to simply being a matter of what pills they are taking is ignorant at best.
If you suspect someone may be taking medicine that they shouldn’t, if you are close enough with the person, find a safe and comfortable way to talk about it with them. But be careful not to assume that their medications are “bad” or “not working,” because unless you are a doctor, you absolutely cannot know that.
Those who struggle with a mental illness are not people who deserve to be treated differently or with scrutiny or judgment or pity. We deserve to be treated and talked to like everyone else, even in moments of weakness. Because at the end of the day, we are people with hearts and minds and dreams and hopes that matter and are important and worthy of being noticed on their own, separate from the things that are going on internally, and recognized with love and respect. And that just may be the very thing that can make more of a difference for someone who is struggling than anything else.
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Thinkstock photo via Christos Georghiou.