Often it's hard to know how our words can affect someone because we only ever stand in our own shoes. To help with that, I've compiled a list of things you really shouldn't say and the responses you definitely would get if you were talking to someone with a mental illness 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. Often, it is an actual chemical imbalance, or it manifests in panic attacks that symptoms mimic heart attacks, or when someone is triggered their entire body might break out into hives, or it takes over one's life so much that the idea of getting out of bed in the morning is rationalized to be the worst thing that could possibly have to happen.
So you’re correct about one thing- mental illness is completely dramatic for the person who has it. But 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.
Obviously everyone with a mental illness has 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 is bad.
3. OR Try just living with itYeah, you know- 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 your CPA qualified you to be a practicing psychologist! Do I have to pay you for this session or is it on the house?
Like I said earlier- symptoms that look like a heart attack. I don’t tell someone with an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts to go eat peanuts to build their tolerance. They would die. That would be dumb.
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) that 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 that surrounds mental illness. The symptoms people with mental illness face are not a saga like twilight—they are a nightmare that you need to learn to reduce the power of. Don’t suggest that I create this life for myself as if I’m trying to write a good story. If I wanted a story, 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. 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. It's giving me such PTSD! OR- Oh my gosh I’m so depressed! OR- That girl looks totally anorexic. OR- You sound schitzo. OR- I wanted to kill myself it was so boring. OR- Yeah that test gave me a panic attack.Be more insensitive, I dare you. When someone is actually living with or knows someone with PTSD, depression, anorexia, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, or an anxiety disorder (among many other mental illnesses), hearing you define something that is so clearly not one of these illnesses as such, their entire world is crushed. Anyone who knows the true severity and importance of taking these illnesses seriously, knows that they are not something to be taken lightly and when you do that, you show them 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, you should be really skinny right?How naive are you? That isn’t how eating disorders work.
11. Why can’t you just eat? Cake isn’t scary. What's the big deal?Again, not how eating disorders work. It is a big deal, because it isn’t a fear of cake like your little sister is afraid of tuna fish- it is a mental illness. Why don’t you just jump out of a plane without a parachute? That is essentially what you’re asking.
12. 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 (among others), a person isn’t “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, even years. Thanks for the advice but I don’t need to “go for a jog.”
13. I get it.
No, you don’t.
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 decided you need
- 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. That you will always trust and support and value them, not that you think theyre just being dramatic. The truth is, you might never understand, in fact, you probably won’t but thats okay- you don’t need to. you just need to be there.