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What not to say to someone with a mental illness

How can we be aware of the impact of our words while speaking to someone about their illness?


What not to say

No, you’re stronger than this!
Or: You can do it!

Comments like these may touch a nerve because mental illness isn’t caused by weakness; neither is it true that someone who is strong is immune from mental illness. A person with mental illness may feel vulnerable or weak at certain moments, and hearing that they can choose to be stronger or do something different can hurt.

Don’t be upset
Or: Snap out of it

Statements like these may (inadvertently) imply that a person is choosing to be upset because they want to. Different people can have different emotional reactions to the same situation. Telling someone who is feeling low not to be upset or to change how they feel can invalidate their feelings, and give them the sense that they’re overreacting to the circumstances.

If you don’t think about it, you’ll feel better.
Often, when people talk to us about their stresses or worries, we urge them to think about ‘something else’. While this may sound like a solution to keep our worries at bay, it can be more stressful to avoid anxious thoughts coming to our heads. A person can train their mind to be more aware of what they are thinking, but it’s not possible to banish certain types of thoughts altogether.

At least you’re better off than XYZ, you should hear what happened to them…
Sometimes, we say this to help the other person see the bright side, or give them some hope about the situation; however, it can sound like a minimizing of their problems. It fails to acknowledge that while something may not be a catastrophe, it can be painful all the same.

Why don’t you try…
Sometimes we may jump to offering a solution to the other person with the intention of helping them feel better; but we fail to check whether the other person wants a solution from us. Often, we confide in our friends or family to share what’s happening to us, or for some empathy and understanding. Offering a solution too early can lead the person to think that we’re not interested in listening to them.

I don’t believe in mental illness..
Or: There’s no such thing as mental illness.
Or: You shouldn't take medication.

These statements may negate the experiences of an entire section of people who have experienced mental illness, and fail to acknowledge their struggles and their challenges. We all may have different opinions and approaches to the subject; at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that each person has their own preferences and beliefs about caring for themselves, and is likely to have found an approach that works best for them.


"But I don't know what to say!"

When a friend or loved one with an illness speaks to us about their experience, they may just be looking for an empathetic ear. And, at the same time, it is a common human urge to want to ‘fix’ the other person’s problem because we are concerned about them. We needn’t be trained mental health experts to respond in such a situation; what helps is an awareness of what we are saying and why we are saying it. Here are some things to try:

1. Just listen to them, while being aware of your urge to offer them advice or a solution. If you notice yourself getting itchy to offer a suggestion, remind yourself that there will be a time for it - once the person has a sense of being heard.

2. If what they’re sharing with you is not something you understand completely, be honest about it: “It sounds like it’s hard, and I don’t really know how to help. But I am here if you need me.” or “I don’t understand this completely but I want to know more.”

3. Ask before offering advice or suggestions, if the other person is open to hearing it.  

4. If the other person doesn’t as for specific help, ask them what you can do.

5. If hearing their story is overwhelming for you and you think you won’t be able to give them the your full listening attention, be frank: “Actually, this brings up stuff for me too. Would it be possible for you to speak to someone else?”

6. Tell them that you love them, and that you’ll be there for them if they need you.