What Not To Say To Someone With A Mental Illness
When it comes to any chronic illness, there will always be that person who suddenly becomes a medical expert and appoints themselves as ~wellbeing guru~. Whether you’re someone who has a mental illness and are wanting to educate people, or you’re just someone who wants to NOT be that person, here’s what not to say to someone with a mental illness – and some much more useful alternatives.
“Snap out of it.”
This dreaded utterance has to be one of my top hates, because the person saying it simply assumes that you’re staying miserable and unable to live your life properly just for the cheeky little thrill of it. Sorry, I forgot to tell the chemical imbalances in my brain to quit it today.
What to say instead: “Let’s think of some strategies to make things a little easier.”. If you truly care about your family member/friend/partner, you’re going to want to ease their pain. This doesn’t have to mean doing things for them – in fact, self-help is the best strategy in the long run. Sit down with them and write out a list of small things that are going to help them, such as making sure to take a bath/shower, listening to their favourite artist, or preparing a solid meal. Remember that this should be tailored to their individual needs, and not just things that make YOU feel better. This list can then be used by them to look at what behaviours both prevent a relapse, and also help them to get along when they’ve fallen off track.
“Have you tried eating better/exercising?”
We understand that you mean well when you say this. However, this suggestion does not take into account the very way in which living with a mental illness works. For many people, the mental illness burden makes it hard for them to complete seemingly easy everyday tasks, such as keeping on top of personal hygiene, maintaining a clean and tidy living environment, and general organisation skills. Whilst a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise can definitely help a person’s mood and keeping them on track, other underlying issues need to be dealt with first.
What to say instead: “Would you like some help?”. Offer to help them to establish a routine. They may need help cleaning their house, answering emails that have been metaphorically gathering dust, or finding recipes that are healthy but not time-consuming. By helping them to freshen up whatever part (or parts) of their life that has been neglected, this paves the way for positive action, and ultimately, keeping on top of things that are essential to living a normal life.
“Ugh, you’re bad again? But I thought you were doing so well lately!”
Great, let’s draw even more attention to the fact that although I was trying my best, a relapse still happened. Saying something like this is not helpful at all in that it solely makes the person feel shitty about having reached a bad place again, with the added sprinkling of the insinuation that they somehow did this to inconvenience everyone else.
What to say instead: “I’m here for you. I’m proud of you.”. Let them know that you acknowledge their battles and how well they have fought. Reassure them that they can once again get through this – help them to strategise as mentioned above. Encourage them to take a positive attitude in the knowledge that this will pass, but don’t force them to be positive if they’re feeling really low.
“I’m sick of you being miserable all the time.”
Yes, some people do wallow in their feelings, and that does nothing to improve the situation. That said, people often show self-pity as a reaction to feeling misunderstood.
What to say instead: “Help me to understand.”. Take a gentle, non-judgemental approach and see if they are willing to open up to you about why they feel the way they do. It is important to not try to force them into telling you about their thoughts. They may feel that their reasoning is stupid, or they may have been through trauma which is difficult to talk about. If they don’t want to talk to you about things, find out who they can contact to seek professional help.
I hope this has either helped you to better understand the needs of those with a mental illness, or can act as a resource to inform others. If you wish to add your own thoughts about what to say or what not to say to someone with a mental illness, please add your suggestion in the comments!