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10 Things Better Left Unsaid to People With a Mental Illness

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

It’s hard to know what to say sometimes to someone struggling with mental health issues. It can feel like you can’t do right for doing wrong and no matter what you say, it doesn’t help. It’s hard — really hard — and it’s easy to be left feeling helpless just trying to say anything to make the person struggling feel better. I get that the words come from a good place, but there are some things that really are better left unsaid.

1. “It could be worse.”

You’re not wrong; it could be. We could say this of every single person on the planet. It could always be worse. You could always throw something else into the mix of a bad situation and make it a total disaster. However, this doesn’t help. It makes someone living with mental illness feel inadequate, most likely on top of what they already do — like they shouldn’t be moaning, like it’s no big deal.

It is a big deal. Mental illness is a total big deal and it can feel like it couldn’t get any worse. If someone is feeling suicidal and those words are spoken, believe me — it’s a soul crusher and leaves you feeling like a waste of air.

Everyone experiences things differently, this does not mean that one person’s problems are worse than someone else’s just because they are different.

2. “But you have so much going for you!”

You there! You broke your leg? What the hell did you go and do that for?! You have such wonderful children, a fantastic job you now can’t drive to, and all those things you had planned that you now can’t attend!

Yep. No more words needed.

3. “You’re self-harming? You’re doing it for attention.”

No. I self-harmed for many years and did everything in my power to hide it. This is not something people want to showcase and do everything they can to keep it a secret. Self-harm is usually to release extreme emotions that we don’t feel can be dealt with in any other way. It’s like a boiling pan bubbling over and the frustration and extreme emotion that goes behind self-harm is not attention-seeking behavior. It’s the behavior of someone in extreme emotional turmoil.

4. “You just need to eat.” (To someone with anorexia nervosa.)

Please, please, please do not say this to someone with anorexia. If they could “just eat,” they would. They don’t have the inability to eat, contrary to belief. As someone who struggled with anorexia for many years, we usually want to eat — we don’t want the guilt that comes with it, the tortured mind that follows or the weight gain. But the food itself, we generally want it. We’re hungry. No, not hungry; starving. Literally.

Lots of people with anorexia crave food, study menus and recipes so they already know they should and want to on a basic level, but it’s more complex than that.

It’s the eating disorder voice that tortures someone with anorexia that makes the physical eating feel impossible, so “just” eating is really not an option. This statement really belittles what someone with anorexia is going through.

5. “Pull yourself together.”

I’d love to hear how this is supposed to be done. If someone struggling with mental illness could just “pull themselves together,” believe me — they would have done it a very long time ago.

6. “It’s all in your head.”

Technically, you would be correct. Just absolutely not in the way you think.

7. “You look fine!”

This means nothing. There is a stigma attached to mental health issues that people should look unkempt, not wash, talk to themselves… whatever the misconception may be. Yes, these things do happen in certain cases, but they are by no means the markers of someone with mental health issues.

If I am depressed, I will still dress and put on my make up and do my hair right up to the point of feeling suicidal, and then the pretense will fall… but I will carry it on up until the point where I am absolutely unable to, and usually need to be in hospital.

For me, doing this is my attempt to carry on and not give in. That’s me, and I don’t want to let go of that because it means it’s beaten me, and I will do my damned not to let that happen. However, it is nothing more than a façade. It doesn’t mean I haven’t actually been in my nice clothes, with makeup on and straightened hair, thinking “If I day today, so be it.”

It means nothing.

8. “Suicide is selfish.”

Suicide is the act of someone in extreme emotional pain, who can see absolutely no other way of dealing with it. It hurts so badly that there seems no way out. They just want the pain to stop.

Imagine being in the worst pain you’ve ever been in, every second of every day, possibly for months with no release, no painkillers, attempting to have a normal conversation day in, day out whilst in physical agony.

That may sound extreme, maybe even ridiculous to some, but that is the physical equivalent of what it is like to walk around in such emotional torture. The only difference is no one can see it.

Suicide is not selfish; it’s a human response to extreme emotional pain with seemingly no way to make it stop.

9. “You’ll get over it.”

It’s not that simple. Can you just get over a broken leg without having it looked at and correctly treated? No.

Support and help is needed. We can’t just get over having mental health issues. We can manage them, but we need the support to do that.

10. “Smile, it might never happen.”

This phrase quite literally makes me want to scream. I may be using the broken leg analogy too much here but I’ll use it once more: You’ve broken your leg? What do you mean, you want me to drive you to the hospital? Get up and walk there on it!”

Same difference.

It can be hard to know what to say, but generally open questions, not statements or judgments, work much better. For example:

“How are you feeling today?”

“Is there anything I can do to help you?”

“Would you like to talk about it? I won’t judge you for it.”

“I’m proud of you for keeping going.”

”I’m here any time you need to talk.”

“Would you like to meet up?”

“Do you want some company?”

“I’d like to help you, could you talk to me about this?”

“How are you feeling about X?

There’s many things you can say to help someone, but be open-minded, don’t judge, let them know you are there for them and try to open conversation in a non-forceful way to try and get them to open up about what’s going on. It just takes a little thought about what we are saying before we say it. The smallest things can make a difference and that goes for what we say and how we say it too. Choice of words can be the difference between openness and trust and someone walking away with those feelings.

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Originally published: December 31, 2018
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