People find talking about mental health difficult. It is one of the reasons why the stigma surrounding mental illness is so powerful and pervasive. Unfortunately, when some people break the silence, they do more harm than good.
All of these examples have been said to me at some point, many of them by a single family member (whom I no longer have contact with, for obvious reasons). It is time we moved past these products of assumptions and misinformation. So if you ever find yourself about to say one of the following phrases, please STOP and educate yourself before inflicting more pain on someone who is already suffering.
1. Snap out of it
If only it were that easy! Seriously, if you have ever said this, what the fuck were you thinking? Nobody chooses to be mentally ill. Nobody chooses to be miserable, to endure debilitating symptoms and to limit their quality of life.
Mental illness is not a choice. People with mental health problems cannot choose to recover and then magically get better. Mental health is far more complex than that, for a start. Many people with mental illnesses also struggle to access help, for a variety of reasons, and being able to access treatment doesn’t guarantee recovery.
Telling people to “snap out of it” also places the blame on people with mental health problems, as if it’s their fault they have a mental illness. Again, it’s not a choice. You have a choice though: you can choose not to use this insulting, damaging and all-too-common phrase.
2. There’s nothing wrong with you
First of all, how would you know whether someone has a mental illness? You don’t know what is going on in their head, even if you spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with them (which is unlikely, especially when you will be asleep for a significant portion of time). Plus, chances are you’re not a mental health professional if you take this attitude towards someone. At least, I hope you aren’t a mental health professional.
Secondly, attempting to negate someone’s experience of mental illness can be incredibly harmful. What right do you have to dismiss their diagnosis? How would you feel if you had been diagnosed with a physical condition, diabetes for example, only to be told by some ignorant bastard that there is nothing wrong with you? To be told that your symptoms somehow don’t count as being a genuine illness?
This situation is frustrating enough when you haven’t yet been diagnosed but know something is wrong. When you have endured years of distress before being diagnosed with mental health problems and still struggle to access help and support, facing people with this attitude is frustrating, exhausting and detrimental to your health. It’s awful being told there is nothing wrong with you by someone who hasn’t a clue, especially after your diagnosis has been confirmed by a number of mental health professionals.
Taking this attitude indicates that you think mental health is not as important as physical health. It also implies that you don’t think people with mental health problems are important, because you are refusing to listen to what they are saying.
3. Shut up, stop talking about your mental health problems
If someone feels comfortable enough to talk about their mental health either to you or around you, that should be celebrated. If it makes you uncomfortable, tough — experiencing the stigma surrounding mental health is more uncomfortable and you are perpetuating it if you try to silence people with mental health problems. Instead, try listening.
Be part of the effort to break down stigma by bearing witness to what people say about their mental health. Give them a safe space to talk about mental health problems. It is difficult to express how valuable it is to feel listened to when you have a mental illness; to have someone let you talk without judging you. You don’t need to say anything in return (in fact, giving unsolicited advice on mental health can be very unhelpful, especially if you haven’t experienced similar mental health problems): just be there and listen.
4. You’re lucky compared to so-and-so
Comparing someone’s situation to another person’s is rarely helpful. When you try to compare someone’s mental illness to another person’s problems, it is particularly injurious and offensive.
You don’t know how much someone is suffering when they have mental health problems. You haven’t experienced what they are going through. You have no right to assume that they are suffering less than another person, whether that person has a physical disability, a terminal illness or lives in abject poverty. Even if you happen to be right and they are suffering less than whoever you are comparing them to, they are still suffering.
5. You would feel better if you had a new job/partner/dog/holiday
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate: it can affect anyone, no matter how much they own or how many aspects of their life are desirable. Even if someone with mental health problems is able to gain whatever is suggested (which is difficult, considering how debilitating many symptoms are), it won’t cure their mental illness. At best, they might experience a short term boost in mood.
To check how ridiculous your suggestion is, imagine giving someone the same advice if they had a physical illness or disability. “You have cancer? You would feel better if you went on holiday.” “Your leg needs to be amputated? Get a boyfriend and you’ll feel great!” Mental illness cannot be fixed so easily — otherwise the NHS could save a fortune by giving dogs to people with mental health problems.
6. Go to the doctor and get some happy pills, then you will feel fine
The problem with this phrase is that there is a strong element of truth to it: going to your doctor is essential when you have mental health problems, however tempting it is to hope your symptoms will disappear on their own. However, going to your doctor doesn’t guarantee access to effective treatment. It certainly cannot provide a quick fix.
Most antidepressants don’t make people feel “high” — at best, they improve your mood enough for you to function a little more and use other methods to manage your mental health. It can take a lot of experimentation to find a particular type of medication and dosage which works fot you. Antidepressants can also take a while to work, so each variation needs to be tried for at least a few weeks to determine its effectiveness — unless you experience harmful side effects or a worsening of symptoms, in which case you need to go back to your doctor immediately.
Medication is one of the most effective tools used to manage mental health problems, but it is not magic. Most people will not feel “fine” through taking medication alone, without other therapies and techniques. Its efficacy can also vary over time — for example, one antidepressant I used to take stopped working after a few years, so I had to switch to another type.
Consider how someone might feel if they took your advice and then discovered you are wrong, that they don’t feel “fine”. If they are already in a negative mindset, they are liable to blame themselves and/or view the experience as proof that recovery is impossible. Characterising antidepressants as “happy pills” is incorrect and perpetuates a damaging stereotype.
7. There is nothing you can do, so just get on with it
People with mental health problems cannot “just get on with it.” They are experiencing debilitating symptoms which prevent them from functioning “normally”. If they try, their symptoms are likely to get worse.
There is also a lot which can be done for mental illnesses — the problem is that many treatments are difficult to access. The NHS can provide medication and talking therapies (although these are usually woefully limited and have long waiting lists). There are also many self-care techniques which can be useful, although factors like lack of motivation and anxiety can prevent many people from implementing them. Other people can also help those with mental health problems in a variety of ways, including simply listening and offering practical support.
The point is that there is hope, even if the person concerned doesn’t believe it, and telling someone that nothing can be done is both untrue and detrimental to their health.
8. Go on then, if it’s that bad, kill yourself
Why would anyone say this? Do they think it’s helpful or are they just callous, evil people? In my case, it was yelled by a (now ex-) neighbour when I was having a meltdown and if she had really wanted to help me kill myself, I would have taken her up on the offer at that time. I’m sure my shouting and screaming was annoying, but I was in distress and was suffering much worse than the neighbours.
You may think you are playing devil’s advocate or just letting off steam, but you are making a difficult situation worse if you ever tell someone to kill themselves. You are devaluing their life, providing them with more evidence that they are worthless. It’s cruel and unforgivable.
9. All you need is a life plan
Another case of “I wish it were that simple”! There is a grain of truth in this, since setting goals can help improve your mental health, but when someone has mental health problems they might not be able to make plans. When you believe your life is not worth living, making plans is pointless.
Setting goals can also be damaging — if you fail to achieve them, it becomes another stick to beat yourself with. More proof of how awful your life is and the impossibility of ever changing it. If someone is going through a bad episode of mental illness, making long term plans might be best avoided. Assuming they are even capable of making plans in their situation.
Plans and goals may be helpful, but it depends entirely on the person, their situation and the symptoms they are currently experiencing. However, a “life plan” is not a magical spell (notice a pattern yet?) and it will not cure mental illness, even if it helps some people with mental health problems move forward. I have plans and goals at the moment, but it doesn’t stop me from experiencing fluctuations in my symptoms — it’s simply one of many tools I use to help cope with my mental health problems.
10. Nothing (especially when they talk about their mental health)
While saying nothing is better than saying any of the above phrases, it makes people feel unheard. Acknowledging their mental health problems is incredibly helpful and validating — you don’t need to say a lot, just let them know you are listening.
Say “that must be difficult for you” if someone talks about their symptoms, ask how they are doing when you see them, take an interest and ask questions about their mental health. However, be aware that some people might not want to talk about their mental illness and some people might want to talk sometimes, but not others. Don’t be insulted if someone doesn’t want to talk about their mental health — it’s not personal and mental health can be difficult to talk about, especially when you are experiencing certain symptoms.
Talk about mental health in the same way you would physical health — be empathetic without getting too personal. Don’t ask for all the gory details unless the person concerned offers. Be guided by the person you are talking to; everyone has different levels of openness and only they can determine how much they are comfortable with saying.
The worst kind of situation for someone with mental health problems is when you refer to your mental health and are met with silence, or a hasty change of subject. Mental health is worth talking about and it should be talked about. If you don’t know what to say, say that! Any response which shows you are making an effort to understand and offer kindness will be appreciated.
Talking about mental health and mental illness is vital. It’s the key way we will be able to break down stigma. One of my goals in writing this blog is to help society reach a point where mental health is discussed in an open and honest manner, like physical health.
For constructive ways to talk about mental health, please see this post on how to talk about your own mental illness. If you are wondering why I’m so passionate about speaking out, read Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Mental Health.