Never Utter These 4 Phrases to a Friend with a Mental Illness

May 19, 2015

Never Utter These 4 Phrases to a Friend with a Mental Illness

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the definition of mental illness is as follows:

“...disorders generally characterized by dysregulation of mood, thought and/or behavior… Mood disorders are among the most pervasive of all mental disorders and includes major depression…”

So, in people speak, what this definition is essentially saying is that “mental illness” operates as an umbrella term, covering everything from disorders that affect a person’s behavior, like schizophrenia, to illnesses that affect mood and thoughts, like post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. But, just because this single term is used to cover multiple illnesses doesn’t mean that every mental illness should be treated the same, because someone with bipolar disorder likely operates on a very different level than a person with chronic anxiety. Each will likely have different needs according to their condition.

Your Gray Matter is a Gray Area

Mental illness can be difficult to recognize and diagnose. Unlike other illnesses and injuries, there is no obvious physical affliction from mental illnesses.

One of the most common types of mental illness is depression and, because of its subtleties, well-intentioned articles about what to say and do when speaking to someone with depression abound, but what about other mental illnesses?

Manifestations of these conditions can vary considerably from person to person, so is there really a “one-size-fits-all” approach to supporting someone as they deal with a mental illness? Probably not, but there are some definite no-nos, regardless of the specific circumstances the afflicted person is going through.

Avoid these Four Phrases at All Cost

If you have a loved one suffering from a mental illness, here are some things to avoid saying when discussing their illness:

“It’s just in your head.”

This might seem obviously rude (because it is), but it is surprising how easy this general idea may come up in conversation. Of course the thoughts, moods, and/ or behavior drummed up by a person’s condition come from within their mind, that’s the very definition of a mental illness! However, the same idea can be applied to any illness. Tuberculosis can be “all in your lungs,” and lymphoma might be “all in your lymph nodes.” That doesn’t diminish its seriousness, nor does it help the afflicted person in anyway whatsoever. Saying a sprained ankle is “all in your ligaments” doesn’t heal your ankle, does it?

“Well at least you don’t have [insert illness/ disorder here].”

Yes, thank goodness for that, because life would be so much worse! A person suffering from any mental illness  may feel frustrated at their inability to control their emotions or actions because of their illness, and diminishing their suffering by essentially ranking mental illnesses as better or worse than Condition X does not help. If anything, it may make them feel worse, as if they don’t have permission to feel bad about their struggle.

“Just smile! There’s nothing to worry about. It’ll all be okay.”

That may be true, but smiling is not going to fix the chemical imbalance in my head that causes me to harbor unexplained anxiety. In fact, your nonchalance makes me more nervous because now I don’t feel as though I can express myself truthfully to you. 

“You’re crazy.”

Believe me, the poor soul at the end of this accusation has probably agreed with you at some point. When a person is suffering from a mental illness, the last thing they need is someone to ostracize them with the “crazy” label. Often, a show of emotional imbalance needs an outpouring of support instead of criticism, as the person may not yet know that they have a mental illness.

Want to Help? Offer Love and Support, Not Labels

Mental illness can be a very difficult condition to handle, and an even harder one to understand if you have never experienced it yourself. It can be difficult to show support and understand how to comfort a person when they cannot express their true self. However, if you stay away from any variation of these four phrases, you stand a good chance of becoming the capable, loving, and supportive person that anyone suffering from a mental illness needs.


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