Seven Things Not To Say To a Friend With Mental Illness

I have been open about mental illness since the very beginning. As I tested the water here on my blog, I received nothing but support, and it encouraged me to continue to write about it, continue to talk about it, and continue to be vulnerable about it. I’ll gladly talk to anyone about my experiences, and I’m always up for answering questions.

The problem with such transparency? The well-meaning (and truly, I do believe deep in my heart that they’re all well-meaning) comments intending to help, but which ultimately hurt.

Here are a few such comments, in no particular order.

Cheer up/Don’t be sad/Just think positively. Oh were it that easy! The biggest problem with comments like that is that they assume the problem is a choice. Just try harder! Just choose to be happy! That’s not how it works, and it’s condescending and insulting to imply otherwise. No one CHOOSES depression. No one chooses mania. No one chooses anxiety. And if it were that easy to stop, no one would suffer from them in the first place.

But you have so much to be thankful for. Yes, someone’s life might appear to be problem free. Great job, great marriage, healthy happy kids, etc. I would say first of all that no one knows what happens behind closed doors, and even if someone’s life was as picture-perfect as it seemed? Mental illness does not discriminate. It crosses all borders, and doesn’t care about your gender, race, religion, or socio-economic status.

I know just how you feel. No, you don’t. If you’re fortunate enough not to be affected by mental illness, you have no idea how I feel. Please don’t believe otherwise. If you are one of the unlucky ones, chances are you really can relate…. but even then, I think there’s a risk in assuming that we completely understand how another person feels. No two situations are alike, no two people are alike. Ask questions, share experiences, but tread carefully with phrases like, “I know how you feel.” Never say you understand unless you truly do.

Everyone feels that way sometimes. One of the most disheartening experiences I’ve ever had when it comes to sharing my experience was about a year ago. I’d hit a bump in my recovery, my meds were being all switched up, and my diagnosis was being expanded to include Borderline Personality Disorder. I was a mess, I confided in a friend, and she asked me to describe what it all meant. I did my most vulnerable best, she looked at me with almost a shrug and said, “Oh. We all feel that way sometimes.” Oof. It is extremely minimizing to dismiss a very difficult mental illness as something that we all experience from time to time. I worked, and continue to work, hard – HARD – to do the things I need to do to be well. It’s hurtful for that work to be rejected with a flippant refusal to believe that there was even a problem in the first place.

You need to exercise/get outside/heal your gut/eat these foods/take these supplements/use these oils/try this product. I know that you want to help. I do. But I PROMISE you that anyone dealing with a mental illness has done his or her homework, knows the options that are out there, and has made decisions and determinations about what does and does not help them. They’re also (one would hope) working with a team of professionals whose job it is to help them get well. What your friend needs from you is friendship, not advice.

My brother has bipolar too. He’s in jail. I used this as an example because it was something that was said to me once. (And by the by, how was I supposed to respond to that? I still don’t know.) But it speaks to a larger issue of making assumptions and comparisons. Not everyone who has bipolar ends up jail. Not everyone with schizophrenia is violent. While those things certainly are the reality for some people, every illness is different, and every individual is different. Yes, there are patterns of behavior, and there are shared symptoms… but it’s a slippery slope when you start to believe that the character you saw in Silver Linings Playbook is the epitome of mental illness. Everyone is different.

You just need to turn to God. I saved this one for last, because I think it’s the most damaging on the list. Too many people think that if you just believe hard enough, if you just pray hard enough, that God will take away your illness. This belief is so, so harmful for believers. It leaves those struggling with mental illness feeling as though it’s their fault, that they’ve fallen short, that their faith isn’t strong enough, and that they’re just not TRYING. It is NOT their fault, it is not a sign of weakness, and it can affect anyone. Anyone. Regardless of where they do or do not stand with God. Regardless of how much they believe, regardless of how hard they try.

It can be a delicate thing, dealing with mental illness – dealing with any kind of illness – when it comes to your friends or family. And while it’s true that there are missteps that can easily be made, there are things to be said that can help, immensely.

I’m thinking of you.

I love you.

I’m here if you need me.

I hear you.

I see you.

Simple words that go a long way to let someone know you care, that you don’t think it’s their fault, and that you know they just can’t “snap out of it.” When all else fails, you can never go wrong with just Being There.

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1 Comment

Filed under bipolar, depression, mania, mental health, Uncategorized

One Response to Seven Things Not To Say To a Friend With Mental Illness

  1. Andrea

    Thank you for writing this. <3

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