If you know someone suffering with a mental illness, you may have the best intentions when trying to help them cope. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out what to say. However, no matter how good your intentions are, you could be doing more damage than good. As someone who lives with multiple mental illnesses (major depression, severe anxiety, OCD, and ADHD) and has family members with other mental disorders, I have compiled a list of phrases from personal experience one should avoid and why.
It’s all in your head
This one can be exceptionally hurtful. It is understandable that a mental illness is indeed ‘in your head’ as it has to do with the chemistry of your brain, but the phrase ‘It’s all in your head,’ implies that what the person is feeling is imaginary. Not only that, but it also chooses to ignore the physical symptoms a mental disorder can create such as headaches, chest pain, upset stomach, and insomnia to name a few.
Things could be worse
Just like the previous phrase, this one implies the individual’s feelings are not important. While to you a certain situation can be a minor annoyance, someone with a mental disorder sees the same situation as an unconquerable obstacle. This phrase also goes hand in hand with, “someone has it worse”. By comparing their experience to someone else’s, you run the risk of increasing their feelings of guilt.
Snap out of it
Probably the most common, telling someone with a mental disorder to ‘snap out of it’ is about as effective as trying to open a can of tomato sauce with a spoon, not going to happen. Someone with depression can’t force their brain to create more serotonin let alone “decide” to be happy. Unfortunately, there isn’t a switch that can be flicked so telling someone to ‘cheer up’ or ‘smile’ is counterproductive.
You always look so happy
I believe the great Robin Williams said it best: ‘I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.’ The unfortunate reality is many people hide behind a mask of happiness for the benefit of others. What must be kept in mind is how someone appears on the outside is not a direct reflection of how they feel on the inside.
It’s all a part of God’s plan
Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs; however, this comment is not helpful. The person you are trying to cheer up may not have the same beliefs as you. Even if they do, they could already be battling with shame or fear God is punishing them. On the other hand, they could be struggling with faith in general and saying this phrase to them will only push them further away.
Suicide is selfish
This is a very sensitive topic and should not be judged. This act comes from desperation. Someone with a mental disorder may see it as the only solution to end the excruciating pain and suffering they have been endearing. If someone is contemplating suicide, they need support and guidance not guilt.
You’re acting crazy
Calling someone crazy, mental illness or not, is never helpful. This phrase is so commonly used that many don’t see the harm it can do. By calling someone with a mental disorder crazy you are discrediting their feelings and making them feel as though they shouldn’t be feeling those things at all.
Everything will be OK
Another very common expression. Someone with a mental illness is not capable of seeing that ‘everything will be OK’. They strongly believe the opposite and telling them otherwise will do nothing but lead to frustration and isolation. Just like saying, ‘snap out of it’, there is no switch in their brains to make them believe that truly ‘everything will be okay’.
So what do I say? How can I help?
If you have a loved one with a mental disorder, of course you want to try your best to help without causing any more harm. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just listen. If you’re at a loss for words, here are a few things you can say:
- Thank you for telling me.
- Talk to me, I’m listening.
- How can I help?
- You are not alone, I am here for you.
- This must be difficult for you, but I’m proud of your bravery.
- I love you.
Don’t be afraid to offer options for more support such as the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Helpline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Alexandria Carrasquillo is a psychology student battling her own mental health. Her goal is to bring more awareness to mental health issues in hopes others will seek help and end the stigma.