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The Phrase That's Not Just Invalidating, but Dangerous for People's Mental Health

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

There’s been something recently that’s been getting to me more and more. It’s something I am regularly told and hear others being regularly told too. It makes the situation worse and doesn’t help anyone. What is it? It’s telling people they “can’t really feel that way or they wouldn’t have done X, Y or Z.” The X, Y and Z things would be like asking for help, or telling someone. It pushes the line of thinking we have to prove ourselves — and not in a positive way. It affirms to us that we won’t be believed, that our feelings aren’t real and valid and painful unless we act on them and do nothing to hinder those actions intentionally or unintentionally. And to be honest with you, it’s a load of bollocks. 

Have you ever wanted to hit someone but also wanted to not hit them, possibly for fear of the consequences? Or wanted to lose weight but also wanted to eat something that would hinder that? If someone told you you didn’t actually feel the desire to lose weight unless you lost it, you would think that was ludicrous. Mostly we accept that we don’t always act on our feelings or desires, or that at times, we don’t really think through our actions, or that we can have conflicting emotions. However when it comes to mental health, mental illness and suicide, we are pushed into a corner by professionals and others around us telling us we aren’t suicidal unless we attempt. That we don’t want to die if we have reached out for help. That we don’t feel how we do or have the urges we do unless we act on them. And that is a dangerous game to play when someone’s already struggling. When pushed, a significant number of people will do something to “prove” they feel how they do when accused of lying or not feeling it. And yes that can be a positive if the challenge is getting them to a better place, but when used with suicide or self-harm or other similar things in times of crisis, it often leads to disaster. Yet time after time it seems that professionals and to some degree, society, we put a rule on this that we don’t feel it unless we prove it. That we can only feel one thing, only desire one outcome. That’s simply not true. I’m sure we have all felt conflicting emotions or urges at one time or another. These situations are no different. It is possible to desperately long to end your life, and also be scared of hurting people — and having both doesn’t invalidate either. A lot of people with mental illness or difficulties have been invalidated and pushed down their whole lives, accused of lying, told their emotions, feelings and thoughts are wrong or don’t matter, and by saying those things your confirming to they’re minds that they’re feelings are still unimportant and invalid.

So next time you go to tell someone if they really wanted to die, they’d just do it/get on with it/have kept quiet, please stop and think. It isn’t going to help. Try validating them instead, tell them you can see how awful that must feel, that it must be so difficult, but that it won’t last forever and it isn’t their only desire. Words are important. What we say makes a difference. Acknowledge people, their thoughts and feelings and difficulties and everything else. Your words can make a positive difference, and may help keep someone alive.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Unsplash photo via Caju Gomes

Originally published: February 15, 2018
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