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3 Painful Things You Need to Stop Saying to People With Mental Illness

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Over the years, I’ve heard a wide variety of things said about people with mental illness. Often, these statements have been directed at me by family and friends, but just as often they’ve been directed at others, too. So, I wanted to address and examine some of these statements, why they’re harmful and help continue to perpetuate the stigma of mental illness, and how people can better educate themselves to avoid causing further harm.

1. “It’s all in your head.”

This is easily one of the most common things I’ve heard. It’s also one of the most clueless and dismissive. I typically hear it from people who simply don’t want to acknowledge the existence of mental illness for one reason or another, whether it be because of their religion or for their own convenience or whatever. But the fact of the matter is that mental illness is not just all in our heads. It’s not something we’ve made up. It’s not a fiction to gain attention and sympathy. It’s not an excuse to justify being lazy or awful people or anything else like that. Mental illness is real. It’s an illness of the brain, a kind of brokenness that causes your own mind to betray you and lie to you. Of all the things that can be said to someone who struggles, this might well be one of the most painful and most harsh, exactly because it’s so dismissive of a real problem.

2. “Have you tried prayer/meditation/yoga/insert your favorite remedy here?”

Many of us who live with mental illness have sought out help. (Unfortunately, many more haven’t and continue to suffer in silence — but that’s a topic for another day.) We’ve looked to our religions, we’ve looked to exercise and physical activity, we’ve looked to home-brew remedies and we’ve looked to the medical community for help.

The trouble with mental illness is that the experience is unique to every individual, even if the diagnosis is the same. Depression, for example, looks different for one of my friends than it does for me. Because depression is an illness of the mind, its shape, its color, its flavor is affected by the individual’s personal experiences. The things they’ve lived through, the traumas, the abuses, the social interactions they have with others… all these and more color what effects depression has on you. Your depression may be more or less severe based on all these circumstances but also based on the nature of the physiology of your own brain and body.

There are so many factors that play into mental illness that it’s nearly impossible to trace and track the influence of them all. As a result, your chosen route to wellness probably isn’t going to look like anyone else’s. You may choose a mixture of medication, physical activity and religion. Someone else might choose something entirely different. And your method of treatment may change over time, as well. Mental illness is a moving target. It changes over time, requiring changes in medication, additional modifications to your lifestyle, and so on.

So when someone asks you if you’ve tried such and such remedy? Politely inform them it’s not that simple and, if possible, use it as a jumping off point for an educational conversation about mental health in general and your illness in particular.

3. “You just need to suck it up and push through it.”

This is another of those almost adorably naive statements people make because they’re under the impression that living with a mental illness is similar to dealing with “normal” levels of depression, anxiety and fear borne out of life circumstances and situations. In many of those cases, it is, in fact, possible to “suck it up and push through” because there’s an identifiable problem to be solved. Once the appropriate steps have been taken to deal with the situation, much of the stress and emotions associated with said situation can disperse and go away, and the people involved can get back to living their lives.

Not so with mental illness. Typically with mental illness, you experience all the same emotions as you would when faced with a difficult or painful life situation, only you don’t have the life situation. There’s no identifiable problem, there’s nothing to solve, there’s no tangible opponent to face down with a steely resolve in your eyes. There’s only debilitating despair and pain and anguish and no reason whatsoever for it. You just know you feel like it’s the end of the world, and after a while, you just wish the pain would end. You’d pick yourself up if you could and push through it, but you’re in the darkness and there’s no sign of light, no sign of relief, no end to the pain to be found anywhere. Your life feels hopeless, so what’s the point of even fighting. All that gets you is more pain and prolongs the suffering. Suck it up and push through it, you say? Would that it were so easy.

These are just three examples of things that have been said directly to me. There are many others, and I may highlight some of them later. Bear in mind that I call attention to these statements not to make anyone feel guilty about saying them but to help you understand just how unhelpful such statements are. They gloss over the burden of what it’s like to carry a mental illness, to live with it every day, and just add to the sense of guilt we already carry with us because we feel weak and like a burden on those we love.

Think about your words; think about the effect they may have on someone who struggles; try to place yourself in their shoes for a while and walk in them. Maybe in so doing, you’ll begin to develop a sense of empathy for what it’s like to be unable to escape a mental illness and have a better understanding of how you can come alongside a person with depression and help them along. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living with my own illness, it’s that you can never have too many friends, too many supporters, too many in your inner circle upon whom you can rely at a moment’s notice.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Originally published: December 8, 2018
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