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What Happens When We Invalidate Someone's Mental Health Experience

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I have shared about the importance of validating someone’s story when it comes to abuse or mental health, but I saw something later that made me want to write more about the little ways we invalidate someone’s experience. It all started with this story, where Heidi shares what is probably not an uncommon scenario:

“The first time I needed to go to the hospital for mental health reasons, I was in my early 20s and I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect or what was going to happen. I had nearly no familiarity with talking openly to anyone about my inner workings, let alone to strangers. Eventually, you, the doctor, commenced with asking me what was wrong. I didn’t know how to respond. I froze while searching for my words. And that’s when you said “it.”

“Did your boyfriend break up with you?”I stared back bewildered, and eventually replied:“I don’t have a boyfriend.”You: “Oh, is that why you’re sad?”Me, in disbelief: “… No.””

What we see here is a young woman in distress because of a mental health condition and having the doctor, and others, ask questions that appear to be very dismissive. Tying a major depressive episode to being sad about a breakup. Because you know, young women get all “in their feels” when they have a breakup, so it’s probably nothing more than that. Except major depression is more than that! Someone heading to a hospital for mental health care is not sad a boy doesn’t like them anymore, is not hormonal, and is not angry about not getting a job, or even looking for a break from a stressful job. They are sick, in every meaning of that word, and they need treatment from caring and compassionate health workers. We could go on about the inherent sexism in Heidi’s story, but I leave that to her to tell by following the link above.

What I want to talk about is the dismissiveness, because that really cuts across all genders and people who are struggling. As I consider mental health struggles there has always been a standard list of things people say that while maybe not meaning to be dismissive, are. And when someone dismisses our story or our situation, it can have some really negative impacts. Things like:

  • “It’s not that bad”
  • “Are you just tired?”
  • “You need more exercise, or to eat healthier”
  • “Just stop being so negative”

Every one of these comes across as you wanting to provide an easy answer so that you can stop having to think about mental health. You need them to get better because they’re bringing you down, so it’s frankly easier for you to be dismissive, as opposed to trying to validate what someone is feeling or going through. That might require more time talking and thinking about mental illness, and who wants to do that? Yet, that’s exactly what helps someone feel validated. Being able to tell their story to someone willing to not dismiss it.

We could also talk about abuse here too, and all the ways our stories all invalidated. How many of these have you heard from folks who find out about the abuse you dealt with as a child, or even as an adult:

  • “You were young, you’ll get over it” (Or you don’t remember it that well)
  • “Are you sure it was abuse?”
  • “I can’t imagine (abuser) doing that”
  • “Why didn’t you just leave?”
  • “How could you have let that happen?”

Sadly, I’ve seen these phrases applied to adults in abusive relationships, and I’ve also seen them applied to children by people who clearly do not understand how incredibly hurtful they are to hear. Again, abuse is not a subject many of us want to talk about, or even think about. It’s dark, painful and ugly. Knowing that someone we care about was, or is being, abused is painful. It hurts, and often we want to avoid that hurt, so again we find a way to question it.

To dismiss this person in front of us who is dealing with that same uncomfortableness, only more so because it’s their story, they don’t get to walk away from it. These are not things they want to hear. Hearing them usually leads to an immediate shutdown. A decision that my story is too much, that I need to go back to being quiet, possibly even go back to being abused, because there’s no one willing to even validate what I’m going through, let alone support me through it.

And that silence kills people. Don’t doubt that for a second.

Please keep that in mind before you speak. That person sharing their story doesn’t need you to solve all of their problems, they just need you to know, to be there with them, and validate that what they are feeling is real and OK.

That’s not that hard when you think about it, but it will be uncomfortable. Is someone else’s life worth some discomfort to you? I sure hope it is.

The original version of this article appeared on the author’s blog.

Getty image by hue Photography

Originally published: February 26, 2022
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