Ever have one of those moments when a friend or family member starts talking about a mental illness that he or she deals with? And you find you don’t know exactly what to say, so you quickly shift to canned, “fallback” statements?
Even your most well-intentioned comments can come across as insensitive and “tone deaf,” and can hurt your loved one more than help. Here are four common conversation blunders followed by suggestions for something a little better you might say.
#1 “You don’t look depressed.”
It can be argued that there is no medical condition that brings with it any specific way to “look.” What should someone with cancer look like? How about someone with diabetes? Mental illness will not leave everyone it affects feeling exactly the same. Forget about the stereotype of someone who is depressed sobbing uncontrollably or unable to muster the energy to shower in the morning.
The fact is that most people who suffer from a mental illness go to great lengths to look like nothing is wrong.
What you might say: “Talk to me and help me understand better what you’re experiencing.”
#2 “It’s all in your head.”
Few things could feel more diminishing or dehumanizing than being told that what is emotionally very real to your loved one is little more than an insignificant construct of an overly-active imagination. It also downplays actual physiological symptoms such as disturbed sleep, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, weight fluctuation, and other body aches and pains.
Remember that a mental illness affects all aspects of a human being, and is not merely in “the head.” What you might say: “You seem to be going through something difficult and I’m proud of you for having the guts to work through it.”
#3 “A lot of people would love to have your life.”
This may very well be true, but changes nothing about the emotionally-draining experience that the person you’re talking to is trying to cope with. Telling someone with a mental illness that other people have it much worse can only make him or her feel guilty about the associated feelings.
What you might say : “What you’re trying to cope with is real, and you shouldn’t ever feel guilty about it.”
#4 “Hey, just stay positive!”
Optimism is a great concept, but being told that an attitude adjustment is all that’s needed to deal with life’s challenges can come across as very trite and ineffectual to someone with a mental illness. Would you tell a friend with a broken arm to try to heal it with positive thoughts? Mental illness can be very serious, requiring professional treatment.
What you might say: “This sounds like a difficult situation for anyone to handle, but you’re going to get through it. What can I do to help?”
Long story short: when in doubt, empathy and real listening are always better than rehearsed platitudes, as well-intentioned as the latter may be. Don’t talk to the person any differently than you normally would, and this will go a long way to establishing consistency in the relationship, and to making him or her feel more valued, supported, and secure.
Having trouble starting a hard conversation about a mental illness condition? If you or someone you love need to talk to someone about mental illness or feelings of being overwhelmed, we’d like to help. Consider reaching out to our expert team at Solara Mental Health at 844-600-9747.