It’s often hard to know how our words can affect someone because we only stand in our own shoes. To help with this, I’ve compiled a list of things you shouldn’t say when you’re talking to someone about their mental illness. The items on this list come straight from the suggestions of real people living with mental illness.
1. “You’re being dramatic.”
I’m being dramatic? Seriously?
Mental illness is not equivalent to breaking a shoe and screaming about it for days. It is a real condition. It can manifest into panic attacks that mimic heart attacks, or when someone is triggered their entire body might break out into hives. Getting out of bed in the morning can seem like the worst thing that could possibly happen.
So you’re correct about one thing. Mental illness is completely dramatic for the person who has it. However, it is in no way, shape or form a person being dramatic.
2. “Try ignoring it.”
Oh wow! Great advice! I didn’t try ignoring it! I mean, I’ve tried psychologists, psychiatrists, medication and lifestyle changes. But hey, maybe I could try ignoring it! Thanks for the peachy suggestion.
Most people with a mental illness have likely tried ignoring it. It creates way more problems than good. As you saw with number one, it’s something that shouldn’t and simply can’t be ignored. It’s so important to take some time to focus on it and heal. Ignoring it doesn’t work.
3. “Try just living with it.”
Yeah, you know I tried that and then I literally wanted to kill myself. So I think I’ll keep doing it my way.
4. “Maybe you could trigger yourself more so you can practice handling it.”
Oh, I didn’t realize you were a qualified practicing psychologist! Do I have to pay you for this session or is it on the house?
5. “Well, at least you don’t have to deal with (insert bad thing here).”
Do you like when people minimize the things in your life? No. So don’t minimize mine. Everyone has their struggles. No need to compare.
6. “Why are you trying to make your whole life a saga?”
To suggest (or straight out say) someone is intentionally putting themselves in this situation is straight up ridiculous. It is demoralizing to hear a person tell you that you enjoy the drama surrounding mental illness. The symptoms people with mental illness face are not a saga like “Twilight.” They are a nightmare you need to learn to reduce the power of. Don’t suggest I create this life for myself as if I’m trying to write a good story. If I wanted a story, then I would make myself a princess.
7. “But you seem so normal/ you look healthy? Are you sure?”
Again, your MD comes from which university? Thanks for telling me you think based on whatever limited knowledge you have of my physical appearance or personality that I’m totally fine. I really appreciate it. I’ll just call up the pharmacy and tell them I won’t be needing that prescription refilled being that I’m totally cured!
Mental illness manifests differently in every single person. Don’t presume you know what it looks like in everyone, even if you’ve seen what it looks like in some people.
8. Avoid any insensitive remarks that generalize, stereotype or are based on stigma.
Examples of this would be:
It’s giving me such post-traumatic stress disorder!
Oh my gosh, I’m so depressed!
That girl looks totally anorexic.
You sound “schizo.”
I wanted to kill myself it was so boring.
Yeah, that test gave me a panic attack.
When someone is actually living with or knows someone with PTSD, depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, an anxiety disorder or any other mental illness, hearing their diagnosis used to define things they are clearly not can crush their world. When you take mental illnesses lightly, you prove just how ill-equipped the world is to treat them like people. It’s crushing. You make them feel “crazy.” Which brings us to…
9. “So, you’re ‘crazy?’” (with a smile).
Yeah, that joke isn’t funny. Just don’t.
10. “If you have an eating disorder, then you should be really skinny right?”
That isn’t how eating disorders work.
11. “Sometimes, when I’m sad, I (insert coping method here).”
I’m not sad. My boyfriend did not just break up with me. I did not just fail a test. I cannot eat a bunch of ice cream or go pet a puppy and call it a day.
With an illness like depression or bipolar disorder, a person isn’t always “sad” because something unfortunate has happened to them. People can have depressive episodes for seemingly no reason other than their mental illness. Sometimes people can fall into long-term episodes, lasting days, months or even years. Thanks for the advice, but I don’t need to “go for a jog.”
Now, instead of ending and leaving you with a whole list of things you definitely can’t say, here are a couple of things you could try to say instead:
- I trust you.
- I support you.
- I’m here for you whenever you decide you need me.
- I value you in my life.
- I know I could never fully understand, but I’m always here to listen.
People with mental illness need to know they have you as a rock. They need to know you will always trust, support and value them. They don’t need to know you think they’re just “being dramatic.” The truth is, you might never understand. In fact, you probably won’t but that’s OK. You don’t need to. You just need to be there.
Image via Thinkstock.