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7 (Actually Helpful) Things to Say to Someone Struggling With Mental Illness

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“I get sick of people telling me what not to do, and then not telling me what to do.” No one likes to hear they are doing something wrong. Sometimes, it can be a thing of just feeling a bit foolish; like someone pointing out you are pulling on a door with a sign saying, “push.” Other times, it can be downright demoralizing, leaving the person wishing they had never tried in the first place. I have been on the giving and receiving end of the latter.

I have had to learn how to sort through the giving part as a tool to do better the next time. Unfortunately, there have been situations when I didn’t have too much of a choice. Like when I’ve had a limited amount of time to express a viewpoint during a lecture or a sermon. A person can only fit so much into a 30 to 60 minute window. The humbling part of this scenario is most of the time I can’t say this is the case.

Much of what I share speaks to how I have been hurt in the past and the things I wish were never said to me. These statements are easier to manifest because I am keenly aware of my pain. I almost forget the words which built me up and helped me realize I was not alone. I forget the actions that helped me to see hope for the future.

So today, let’s look at a couple of the things I have needed during my struggle, and maybe they will resonate with you as well.

1. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

When someone asks me this question, they are acknowledging a couple of things. First, I am feeling a legitimate feeling. Imagine you are holding an ice cube and someone told you, “That’s not cold, it’s hot.” It’s the same principle. I know I am feeling something, and just because someone disagrees with me, doesn’t change what I am feeling. Second, there is no assumption someone can fix me. A person might be able to help, they might not, but asking this question says, “I don’t claim to know your situation better than you.” This adds value to my opinion.

2. “Do you want to talk about it?”

As the person who is struggling, I am the one who gets to decide what I do or don’t want to talk about. Giving a person that control says, “I want to help, but I am not going to try and fix you.” I don’t like feeling as if I am a project because a project is formed around the other person’s idea of what I should look like. I want to look like the person I was created to be, not what someone else wants me to be. The other thing this question does is it keeps me from feeling forced to talk about something I may not be ready to talk about. I may not know what is going on or how to verbalize it. My personality is more comfortable with processing internally first, and this question gives me room for that.

3. “I want you to know I am here for you if or when you want to talk.”

I remember the people who say this. Even if I never come to them to discuss what is going on, knowing they are there for me gives me strength. If I do decide to talk to them, I almost always start with trickling in details over time. There have been too many people I thought I could trust whom I regretted confiding in, so don’t expect to hear it all at one time. Sometimes, I have just clicked with a person and words just poured out, but it’s rare, at least for me.

4. “You can talk to me about anything.”

This one has a rule for its use: Only say it if you mean it! With the work I do and my willingness to be transparent about my struggles, people feel safe coming to me with a variety of different things. I’ve been doing what I do for so long, there is very little that surprises me anymore and a person would have to be trying really hard if they wanted to offend me. While part of the reason people feel comfortable confiding in me is because of the ministry work I do, what is said to me is always held in secret (except when mandated reporting rules apply). Most of what is shared has been built over time through trust. People have learned they can talk to me about anything. If you are confident in your ability to navigate this path, this is probably the most impactful statement you could ever make. Secrets shared will lose their power.

5. “I have no idea what you are going through, but I do know what it is like to need a friend.”

If a person has never had clinical depression, an anxiety disorder or any other diagnosis, they will not be able to understand what it is like to live with that struggle. That’s OK, just don’t try to fake it. Being open brings in room for openness.

6. “How can I be praying?”

Unless you don’t hold a belief in God, this phrase is powerful. (And even if you don’t, it still can be.) The importance of combining our mind, body and spirit cannot be overstated, yet oftentimes there is a feeling medicine and faith cannot be combined. This just isn’t true. I believe knowing there is a God who is caring enough to walk us through our pain gives a reason to hope. If I believe I matter to God, I matter. Offering to help connect a person to a God who loves them can bring about so much peace, in my opinion.

7. “I’m sorry.”

Sometimes what we say comes out wrong. Own it and try to learn from it. Sometimes it’s better to get things wrong and apologize than to never say anything. People will forgive mistakes made in love.

This list is in no way a guarantee of a positive outcome in a conversation, or a guarantee of a conversation even happening at all. But it’s a start, and that’s the key … to start. Sometimes, we get so caught up with trying not to do the wrong thing, so we don’t do anything at all. So let me take off some of the pressure: You are probably going to mess up, but that’s OK. Just learn from it.

The reward: You are going to do incredible good as well.

Someone out there needs you and wants to know you care. This is how you start:

Say, “How are you?” and then listen to the answer.

Getty image by Finn Hafemann

Originally published: April 7, 2021
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