What We Should Keep in Mind When People Say Insensitive Things About Mental Illness

Every year we seem to make a little more progress in reducing the stigma around mental illness. In the last year, there have been plenty of triggers for conservations about mental illness. It feels like discussions about mental health are becoming increasingly socially acceptable. However, I have noticed that as these discussions have increased, so has the backlash when someone says something wrong or insensitive.

I was reading an article the other week about Dr. Ranj Singh who was taking part in a segment on the UK breakfast show “This Morning.” He was talking about the rise of eating disorders and said we are seeing “eating disorders becoming more and more popular.” Twitter was in uproar over the comment, that seemed to imply that eating disorders were a choice. And while Dr. Ranj took to Twitter to explain he had simply made a mistake and had meant to say eating disorders were “more common” rather than popular, it seemed the damage was already done.

Here’s the thing: If we want to have more openness when it comes to talking about mental illness, then we have to be realistic and accept that people will say the wrong thing sometimes. It might be a celebrity on social media, or it could be your aunt or friend putting their foot in it. Maybe it’s a slip of the tongue or a result of lack of understanding, or in some cases it could be malicious. Whatever the reason, we can be certain it will happen.

And how we react to these comments matters too. We can react in anger, taking our frustrations to social media, condemning and ridiculing the commenter. But the risk is that instead of changing the conversation about mental illness, we shut it down altogether. The next time mental illness comes up in conversation, that person may try and avoid it altogether, quickly changing the subject, increasing the stigma those of us with mental illness may feel.

And it’s really hard. It’s hard because it’s never just about that one comment. Our reaction is a culmination of all the comments that have gone before, the unkind looks, the rejection and lost friendships. Many of us have been badly hurt by other people’s reactions to our conditions in the past. And that hurt makes us quick to be on the defensive when we feel threatened, firing shots over the walls we have put up.

Through all of this, it’s clear what we’re seeking from those around us is more compassion and understanding. We want a world where having depression is no more stigmatized than a visible illness. But don’t we need to be demonstrating that same compassion and understanding to that person who has made that hurtful comment?

Maybe what they said was a slip of the tongue, perhaps they didn’t realize how their comment sounded. This could be the first time they’ve discussed mental illness, so maybe they have no idea what someone with mental illness “looks” like. Or their words could be an indication of problems and issues going on in their lives that they’re not able to deal with yet. Mental illness could be deeply personal to them — maybe they’re thinking of that parent who was too ill to look after them or the friend they lost to suicide. In the same way they don’t know what it feels like to be you, you don’t know what’s going on with them.

So perhaps instead of reacting in anger, we can try to stay calm. If we have the opportunity, we can continue the discussion, bringing our own wisdom and experiences into the encounter. We can give them a chance to explain their opinion or clear up any misunderstanding. And it’s OK if we still don’t agree — everyone sees the world differently. But it’s possible that the discussion you’ve had will have given more insight to both sides. And as a result, their next discussion about mental illness could be different.

People are going to say the wrong thing. And we have no control over what they may say. Instead, we have a chance to direct where the conversation goes from there. Hopefully, with more compassion and education we will be able to build a stigma-free future for those struggling with mentally illness.

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