Throughout the years I’ve been pleased to see more and more awareness being built around the understanding of what people’s lives are like when dealing with mental illness. Many individuals have been vocal through blogs, social media, and other outlets about their personal stories, which has worked toward normalizing a factor in people’s lives that is so widely misunderstood and stigmatized.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done. In my work as a mental health counselor, primarily working with adults with severe and persistent illnesses, I have witnessed and heard secondhand all kinds of comments ranging from eye-rollable to downright nasty. It seems that even family, friends and providers for people with diagnoses need a refresher in compassion just as much as the general public, at times.
Here are some too common examples of stigmatizing and hurtful comments we should never say to someone living with a mental illness—whether we are aware of their illness or not:
1. “Why don’t you just _____ and you’ll feel better?”
The old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” commentary is still alive and well for people in recovery, unfortunately. This question reveals a deep misunderstanding of mental health and suggests that something like clinical depression is no different than having a bad day. This may be because having a bad day is an experience everyone can relate to, whereas depression is not, but I encourage everyone to understand that clinical symptoms are much more complicated. There is no harm in suggesting that someone who is going through a rough time engage in healthy coping skills, but there definitely is harm in thinking that their plight can be boiled down to not getting enough sleep, reading enough books or not taking enough baths.
2. “You don’t act like a schizophrenic.”
I kid you not, this was actually said to a client I work with while visiting another medical “professional.” There is so much that is not okay with this comment, I barely know where to begin. Try replacing “a schizophrenic” with a descriptor for any other minority group and you will see just how hurtful and tone deaf this comment is to hear. Firstly, calling someone “schizophrenic” eliminates every other part of their identity and labels them with the stigmatized portion (we don’t call patients with cancer “cancerous,” do we?). Secondly, there is no one way someone with a mental illness acts, and to suggest as much shows judgment and invalidation of worth.
3. “Have you taken your medication?”
Unless this question pops up in a totally appropriate conversation about medication or treatment, please do not ambush people who may be experiencing everyday human feelings by insinuating that their emotional expression is caused by their illness. People in treatment may already be working through their own emotional stuff and giving them the message that there is something wrong with expressing themselves can be confusing and unnecessarily silencing.
4. “Wow, that person is being so bipolar right now.”
This type of comment is another example of not understanding what terms mean and how they can affect people who actually do identify with them. Not only does this reflect misinformation about bipolar disorder (newsflash: mood swings or changing one’s mind is not “being bipolar”), but it suggests a person has less worth if they have the disorder. Again, inserting another characteristic or identity into this equation brings to light how hurtful this comment can be. I think most of us have reached a point where we no longer accept “that’s so gay” as a part of civilized, compassionate social interaction—this can be just as distasteful.
So, how do you talk to someone about their mental illness? The best bet is to wait until (or if) they are ready to talk to you. If you are close with someone and/or the topic has already come up, be sure to practice the same compassion you would use with anyone else. After all, mental illness may be a unique experience for some, but at its core it’s just one factor among many that defines a person and their experiences.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides excellent resources for people living with mental illness and their friends and family, if you would like to explore more information on different disorders, personal stories from people in recovery, and where to find additional support.