It can be hard to know what to say when you are talking to someone with a mental illness. You don’t want to insult them, minimize their experience, or otherwise offend them. Who would want to do that? If you haven’t been around a lot of people who have a mental illness, it can be difficult to know what to say.
My entire career has been centered around this, but I can’t call myself an expert. Everyone slips up. I’ve said the wrong thing to people and felt bad about it. I’ve apologized and learned from it. I have issues with anxiety and depression (currently both are majorly impacting my life), and it seriously hurts when people around me don’t even try to understand what I am dealing with.
It can be difficult for me to even get out of bed, shower and eat without my brain telling me to stay in bed with my dark thoughts. When people minimize my feelings, it just makes me want to crawl into a hole and stay there until everything fades. This is just one part of how I feel and how I see things. It’s different for everyone.
Take Time to Think
Empathy goes a long way when talking to someone with a mental illness. Think carefully before you start discussing what’s going on- they may not be feeling their best, or even if they are, it’s still a tough subject.
I don’t like talking about my anxiety and depression, and I only do so when I really need to. When I do, it’s more about the current issue I’m having- if I’m having a bad day and I just want to be left alone, panicking over things that are going wrong, or even struggling with staying sober. The main issues behind my anxiety and depression? I’ll pass. This goes for a lot of others.
Trust doesn’t come easily to people with mental illness. We have seen people come and go, sometimes unexpectedly. We become guarded. We don’t like letting people in, some don’t let anyone in. This has its own set of issues.
If you want to discuss what’s going on with us, please do so gently and judgement-free. We get enough of that. If you don’t know much about anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc., please ask. Try researching it on Google.
Do’s and Don’ts
These tips may help you navigate the discussion of mental illness with someone you know.
- Say “I am here for you if you need to talk” This can mean so much to someone, with or without a mental illness. Three of my closest friends have varying degrees of mental illness and we are there for each other, no matter what, any time of the day. We are each other’s support system. This can be a huge amount of comfort- knowing someone is there for you. I am incredibly lucky to have these friends. Just listening to someone can be the best thing you can do.
- “You’re not weird” Some with mental illness, especially severe mental illness (SMI), feel as if they are “weird” or “nuts”, but those that are close to them don’t see them that way. Reminding them of this can help them know that they are capable of being a person with a life outside of their illness.
- “You deserve to be happy” This may encourage someone to seek help sooner than later. It may remind them that they don’t deserve the self-stigma they put upon themselves. Happiness is for everyone.
- Ask them if they are in treatment and if they are, how it is going. If they are not, encourage and/or help them find help. This can be incredibly helpful to someone who may be struggling.
- “You’re awesome for fighting this battle” Sometimes a little bit of encouragement can go a long way.
- “Snap out of it” I hate this phrase so much. I wish I could snap my fingers and be much happier, but that’s not how it works. Even with two years of therapy and learning coping skills, I still have terrible days. It just doesn’t work like that. Sometimes I can stop the anxious thoughts, sometimes I can’t. It snowballs and things so badly from there. I don’t enjoy this.
- “It will be better when the pain goes away” Um..no. This isn’t how it works. The pain comes back and sometimes it’s a lot worse, so what happens then? Life isn’t magical like that, so until unicorns show up and cure depression, I don’t see this happening.
- “You’re just looking for attention” If I wanted attention, I’d find a much better way to get it. Depression and anxiety both suck. I definitely don’t want attention because of it. I’d rather be left alone when either make an appearance. I don’t know anyone with a mental illness that uses it for attention.
- “But you don’t look sick” UGH. I get this one a lot because I have RA, and in fact, I’m annoyed by that. Do I need to get a cane or electric wheelchair? Carry around a copy of my labs? I digress, but you get the idea. It’s basically the same with mental illness. It’s invisible. You can’t see it. There’s no way to tell unless someone tells you and even then, millions of us manage to maintain hygiene daily. Those that don’t are usually severely sick, and that is a whole different issue.
- “I went through the same thing..” Unless someone asks, don’t do it. This isn’t a competition. Sometimes your perspective can help, but most of the time, it looks like you’re trying to compete and that’s not helpful.
It is so important that we think before we speak on delicate topics, especially something like mental illness.
Do you have any tips to add? Do you have any experiences to share?
Recommended Reading: Book Review: “Struck By Living”
Information courtesy of Time To Change
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