Life

What Not To Say To Someone With a Mental Illness

Man dealing with mental health problems

I make it a general practice to believe that most people are good. It leaves room for compassion and patience for those who, although well-intentioned, don’t always understand the ramifications of their insensitivities.

Call it a tool of healthy defensiveness, if you will. It protects me from hurt when people say things that are founded in ignorance and lack of access to knowledge. I’ve built this defence mechanism out of necessity for self-preservation and to protect my mental health from the barrage of strange and hurtful things I’ve had said to me most of my life correlating to my gender identity, sexuality, and mental health.

When I was twenty-one years old, I experienced what, at the time, psychiatrists called a “nervous breakdown.” I was subsequently diagnosed with panic disorder, acute anxiety, and depersonalization disorder. This was over twenty-five years ago and my knowledge of mental health issues at the time was nil. Google and Web MD didn’t exist and all I had access to was a Canadian-healthcare-appointed seventy-year-old psychiatrist with archaic views of gender and sexuality who within 15 minutes of being in her office wanted to put me on an anti-depressant.

I felt lost inside a maze of diagnoses that did nothing to help me understand how I’d gotten there in the first place and how I was going to get out.

Besides the struggles I went through accessing proper mental healthcare, what sticks out the most was how people around me reacted to my situation. I can unequivocally say that most of what was said to me that was intended to help made it more difficult and prolonged my recovery and healing process.

Here are some examples:

From a male friend: “You don’t need to take pills to get better. Pills are for weak people.”

From a girlfriend: “I don’t understand why we can’t just go out anymore. I feel like we’re missing everything.”

From an older cousin: “What’s wrong with you? You’re so fat. Look at what you’re wearing. You need to have some self-respect.”

From my brother: “Stop being an idiot. Can’t you see what you’re doing to Mom and Dad?”

There are two common threads in these deeply insensitive and hurtful comments. One is that they all came from people who loved and cared for me. The second is that they all believed I was in control of what was happening to me.

What most people don’t seem to understand is that mental health issues stem from an inability to control/regulate your nervous system and thinking patterns in some form or another, so they are the loss of control. Therapy, treatment plans, and medication are the means to regain that control.

On the other side of the insensitive comments was dead silence. My parents were very aware of what I was going through and doing their best to support me. Unfortunately, their chosen method of support was to not talk about it. I truly believe they thought it would make it worse if they did, so there was this eerie tip-toeing around me that became louder than words. That silence led me to believe that I was a family secret. A burden. The subject of a whisper when my aunts came over, directed by my mother not to mention my forty-pound weight gain caused by the combination of anti-depressants I was on, or my transformation from a chatty joker to a silent, dead-eyed lump on the couch who went to my bedroom whenever anyone came over.

When you feel your presence makes people edgy, you learn to leave before the palpable discomfort. It was a sad time, but I’ve healed a lot since and have regained control of my life.

I have shared this personal story for two reasons. Firstly, as an example of radical vulnerability to help break down mental health stigma and silence, and secondly, to help others feel less alone.

The shame I felt for something I had absolutely no control over led me to the greatest isolation I have ever experienced. Shame and isolation are an extremely dangerous combination for anyone already experiencing mental health issues, so I have come here to share with you a few tips on what you should never say to someone with a mental illness and why.

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1. Snap out of it!

Mental illness is just that. An illness. That’s like asking someone to snap out of diabetes. When we all start to accept that mental health is an actual health problem, we will start treating those suffering with more compassion.

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2. You can choose to be different.

While the goal of this advice may be to empower someone, it has the opposite effect as it gives the illusion of choice to someone who has none. Instead of telling someone they can choose to not be mentally ill, ask them how you can offer help.

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3. People who go to therapy and psychiatrists are weak.

This is an extremely dangerous statement to someone in need to professional help. It also shames the individual struggling. I cannot impress enough upon folks that if your goal is to see your loved one get healthier, the first step is to get help, not avoid it.

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4. When is this going to end?

Some mental health issues are lifelong companions. They don’t end but they can be managed with the proper treatments and help individuals have an exceptionally better life. The kind of pressure this puts on a mentally ill individual will only exacerbate their struggles. Instead of lending to their struggles, ask them how you can help make their day better.

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5. Silence can sometimes hurt more than words.

Don’t be afraid to ask a loved one about what they’re experiencing. Do research to better understand so that you can be part of their support and recovery.  Be intentional and kind. Your willingness to ask and listen rather than offer unsolicited advice, can go a long way in helping someone heal.

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