Mental Health Blogs

Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say

I feel, sometimes, that I am at war with the mentally-well world. This isn’t to say that many of them aren’t lovely or that I have a desire to harm anyone, but I do feel embroiled. And it’s mostly because the well population just doesn’t understand what it is to be unwell. They demonstrate this heartily by repeatedly saying the worst things possible to a person with a mental illness.

Some of My Favorite Worst Things to Say to a Person With a Mental Illness

  1. Snap out of it
  2. There are a lot of people worse off than you
  3. You have so many things to be thankful for, how can you be depressed?
  4. You’d feel better if you got off all those pills
  5. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
  6. Go out and have some fun
  7. I know how you feel
  8. So you’re depressed, aren’t you always?
  9. This too shall pass
  10. We all have our crosses to bear

And as a bonus, my personal favorite: We create our own reality.

Ug. (I’m not the only one thinking about this, check out the worst things to say to anxious people.)

megaphone

Why These are Stupid Things to Say

Any of those statements shows that you have no idea what you’re talking about. You fundamentally do not understand the concept of an illness if you think any one of these are appropriate. I suggest trying it with other disorders and see how you feel:

Hey, diabetic, snap out of it.
Hey, epileptic, I know how you feel.
Hey, paraplegic, so you can’t use your legs, isn’t that always the case?
Hey, person with multiple sclerosis, we create our own reality.

You get the idea. No one would think that is reasonable, and it’s no more reasonable just because you can’t see the illness because it’s in my brain.

These Are Hurtful Things to Say

And perhaps worse than showing ignorance, these things even inflict pain on the person you’re trying to “help”. You are saying that:

  1. They could choose not to be sick if they really wanted
  2. Their illness is not serious
  3. They have no “reason” to be ill
  4. Their treatment is wrong
  5. They’ll be better off from it
  6. They would be fine if they would just “go out”
  7. Their illness is minimal
  8. Their pain doesn’t matter
  9. They should just wait for the pain to end
  10. Their illness is just like anyone else’s problem
  11. They choose to be sick

Again, I dare you to tell a person with any other illness any of those things.

And lest we forget, the mentally ill person in front of you is already probably feeling very bad about themselves, and you have chosen to go and make it worse.

shoe_on_headLet’s Not Forget, People Die From Mental Illness

The idea that mental illness is serious isn’t something that I made up, it is a fact. Estimates are 1 in 5 people with bipolar disorder commit suicide and 1 in 2 people (yes, that’s half) attempt it. And of course there are hospitalizations, work absences, destroyed families, having to go on disability, and so on. This is serious stuff people. It is not a runny nose.

Why Do People with Mental Illness Have to Justify Themselves?

Why is it that just because I see a psychiatrist and you see a neurologist your disease is real and mine is not? Why is it you assume I can will my disease away while you can’t? Why is it that you can expect me to bring you chicken soup when you get the flu but when I get sick I can’t even expect that you’ll stick around?

I do understand that people don’t know they are being hurtful. People are trying to help. I get it. But here’s the thing, my illness is just as real as anyone else’s. Please stop forcing me to convince you.

Update: Check out the best things to say to someone with a mental illness.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

This entry was posted in Being Crazy, Denial, Depression, Fault, How Others See Bipolar, Impact of Bipolar, Losing Friends, Talking About Bipolar, Understanding Mental Illness and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

186 Responses to Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say

  1. Debbie Steagall says:

    My gosh! How loud “we” scream for help sometimes – although “we” must be screaming under a pillow – or might as well be. Thank you for publishing this article. I’m a “newby” bipolar – having been misdiagnosed for 18 months and feeling like a guinea pig with meds. I don’t even remember how I found “you” and Bipolar Burpy yet I know it has renewed my faith in myself – in re-finding ME!

  2. Qua says:

    My #1 most hated thing people say about anyone feeling unwell, in pain, depressed, hurt etc, is that they have a choice in the matter, and that we choose to be unwell and can just “will” it away. Seriously, out of anything, this drives me batshit insane with rage. Someone once told me I was CHOOSING to be hurt by some really awful shit someone said to me that I cared about…. and on SO many levels, that is just bullshit and it’s awful to say to someone. I don’t choose what OTHER people say to me or do to me, nor do I get to choose how it makes me feel or hurts me. I also don’t goddamn choose to have mental illness or be in severe physical pain. If I could choose, I certainly wouldn’t choose to be this miserable…and the implication that I WOULD, that is probably most offensive. Those people, for all I’m concerned, should have everything they love taken away from them, and given illness and pain, and then someone should tell them the same thing. I don’t think most of those people have EVER truly suffered.

  3. Joyce says:

    People with Borderline Personality Disorder don’t choose to feel the way they do. It has been shown in brain scans that they are different than people without the disorder. They feel things ten times stronger than others. They are highly sensitive, empathetic and easily overwhelmed.

  4. Louise says:

    Hmmm…I have a mental health illness, have suffered from my teens…I am now stable after therapy and am on meds. I don’t know if I agree with comparing some comments to commenting on other illnesses i.e. ‘snap out of it diabetic’. You wouldn’t compare someone with diabetes to someone with heart disease, for example. And I personally do believe that myself, as a mental health survivor, I create my own reality. I may not CHOOSE to have my symptoms but I can choose how to manage those symptoms. I can choose to stay in bed or I can get out bed; I can choose to actively do things that help me i.e. talk, exercise, eat well, take my meds. Someone with diabetes or heart disease or MS does not have much of a choice – they can not eat sugar, do more exercise, do things their doctor suggests…my point is, when I decided not to allow my mental state to control me, when I decided to accept things, my life got better. Just my subjective opinion :) xxx

  5. Ross says:

    Don’t confuse mental disorders (“mental illnesses”) with brain diseases. Psychiatrists treat the former; neurologists treat the latter. Your bipolar condition may be real, but that doesn’t mean it’s a brain disease.

  6. Julia says:

    Dear Louise,
    While I agree with your main point, I am confused by your overall post. “…wouldn’t compare heart disease to diabetes”–why not? It would probably be best if we didn’t compare any illness; but we’re human and we’re constantly comparing, evaluating, and drawing conclusions. (and judging)

    I loved what you said about “how you may not choose to have your symptoms, but you can choose how to manage those symptoms” I’d argue this is true for EVERYONE with ANY illness, though. (to different degrees of course) Managing symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean making them become less intense or frequent. It can also refer to how one responds to the fact that these symptoms exist at whatever level they do.

    Dear Ross,
    I find your comment of a “real” illness interesting. What exactly does that mean to you? Are there “fake” illnesses that people have? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a “fake” illness.

    As for your other contribution, neurologists do actually often diagnose and treat “mental illnesses” too. Also, I was curious as to what the difference is between “brain disorder” and “brain disease.” I’ve not known of such a distinction, and I would tend to think that the two terms are somewhat interchangeable.
    Lastly, in an ideal situation you have both psychiatrists and neurologists working closely together for the benefit of the patient.

  7. Dee says:

    A guy I recently became involved with has exhibited behaviours that leads me to believe he is bipolar. I have tried to be patient with him and at the moment he is ignoring me, but I know he is reading my emails. Do you think it is OK to tell someone by email that you think they are bipolar? Or should you always have this type of conversation face to face – what if it simply is not possible?

  8. Laila says:

    Thank you so much for writing this blog.
    I searched ‘making fun of mental illnes’ on google an thak god this blog came up.

    If I could just rewined 4hours prior where my once supportive partner of 2 years commited the ultimate betrayal and used my mental health illness in the past against me.

    It had been the final straw and after months of put down comments such as “Your a drama queen” “You crave the drama and feed off it” “You brong things on for yourself” “Things would be better for youbif you just listened” *sarcasticslly* “You’re never in the wrong are you”
    to what was said tonight. I dont care how heated things get, on an argument or not, I urge people not to use someones mental illness against them.

    Especially when its in their past as such, and they are stable and recieving on going treatmemt for it.
    I would argue it is the same as someone retaliating by defaming the name of a dead relative, openly harassing someones tradegy be it rape or abuse and stating they were to blame for what happened to them and how others treated them

  9. Laila says:

    Sorry, hadn’t finished then…and submitted by accident.

    On this occasion the very man who had been in A&E with me for various health problems both physical and mental,took a recollection I had told to him of my past. I would argue the physician who delt with me in A&E, the psychiatrist and the crisis team (who failed me- but that is a different topic) only knew barr me ofcourse.For clarity- it was of a failed suicide (thank god it failed.

    However he took something so personal and sacred and blamed the widely known and proven fact of the many failures of the NHS in dealing with mental illness …which i had to face in my caseand said:
    “Thinking about the time you were begging people to help you and being turned away time and time again, it suddenly clicked to me- the problem isn’t an illness or a failure in the system- the problems you.”

    Suffice to say I left winded, shocked and in floods of tears. How could he?! How could he say that? After the many times i repeat over and over, ‘I would never wish depression or the darkness that I have endured on my worst enemy’. After hearing such things and knowing how bad i suffered and still suffer as I feel so much of me was lost and taken away; to still say such- well it sickens me.

    Alas, ignorance, ill information and a will to ignore and not compassionately understand. What can we do? When sharing, speaking up and communicating our experiences can be used against us. How can we constantly be brave and fly the flag for awareness and compassion if people will throw our experiences of suffering back in our face?
    It won’t stop me, but i can safely say the struggle is hard and we are no where near bringing others to understand .

    But i will add one more thing, I still don’t wish, or ever will wish such darkness and suffering on him or anyone else..enemy or friend.

    So thank you for writing. Thank you for sharing.
    Laila

  10. Myriad says:

    While I agree with most of the article, I don’t really see what’s wrong with the statement “We all have our crosses to bear”. Sure, it does depend on the way it is said, it is ignorant and hurtful if it’s meant as “So what, we all have problems. Conversation closed, next topic.” But as part of the conversation I don’t see much wrong with it, even when I substitute the statement with a physical illness.

    Sure, life is difficult with mental illnesses. It’s difficult when you’re depressed all the freaking time. I don’t even know what happiness is. I’m missing half my emotions. I’m often depressed, and when I’m not I’m void of feeling. Anhedonia kicking in, feeling like a ghost, hollow inside. At those times I’ll desperately attempt to feel something. Since there is no happiness, joy or other nice feeling in my emotional range, that means I’m trying to feel sad again. Just to feel something. Pathetic? Perhaps, but it’s the only way to keep me connected to myself.

    But it doesn’t give me the right to minimize other people’s pain and problems either. Everyone has problems and pain to endure. It’s not that theirs don’t matter because they don’t happen to have a mental illness. So yes, we do all have our own crosses to bear. And I’m not the one to judge just how heavy theirs is.

  11. Karen says:

    8.So you’re depressed, aren’t you always? Had a close friend say this to me, then apologize the following week. The trouble with that is she says things like that fairly often. She’s quite insensitive, and I wish I would get the guts to tell her so.

  12. Justin S says:

    Back in high school a friend of mine and I were sharing a pretty terrible day. He was still reeling from being abandoned by his friends in class when they were called up to present (the two of them had played hookie just for the occasion), and I meanwhile was trudging through the day, pining desperately for my bed. We had a lonely hearts club pow wow at lunch and words got heated. He told me the following when I insisted he didn’t know how this felt: “Having crappy friends is a lot worse than having bipolar.” There was so much I wanted to snap back at him with but I got too choked up to do anything but grab my books and run to the library. I remember thinking to myself, “And least the two can’t compound for him.”

    He never apologized. It’s been years since I’ve seen him.

  13. Layla says:

    The comments in response to this post reflection so many discussions I have experienced throughout my life. Just like Louise, I believe in the power of choice and creating my own reality. I have DID and PTSD and other stuff. However, I do not think that my experiences along my healing journey are going to be the same or should be the same as what others with mental health challenges are facing. So many of the most harmful, insensitive, dismissive, and hurtful comments I have heard have come from others who are living with mental health issues. These comments are based on perspectives shaped by comparison and contrast. We accuse each other of being attention-seekers. We accuse each other of using our symptoms as excuses. We express feelings of superiority if we are managing our symptoms without medication. We think that our experiences are what define the standards that others should follow. If we share similar diagnoses with others, we see ourselves as the experts on what others should be doing and should be experiencing. We think that what works for us should work for everyone else. I hear a lot of judgements from others with mental health challenges. We need to stop judging each other.

  14. Layla says:

    Other things that I do not want to hear from other people:
    You should try acupuncture.
    You should try meditation.
    You should try yoga.
    You should try running.
    You should give up dairy.
    You should take this natural supplement.
    You should read this book by so and so or attend this workshop on this topic.
    You should try reiki.
    If I do not ask for your advice, then these statements are hurtful because they do not take into consideration what I need or do not need from you. You should keep your advice to yourself unless I ask for it.

  15. Layla says:

    Myriad, Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you for your post:

    “But it doesn’t give me the right to minimize other people’s pain and problems either. Everyone has problems and pain to endure. It’s not that theirs don’t matter because they don’t happen to have a mental illness. So yes, we do all have our own crosses to bear. And I’m not the one to judge just how heavy theirs is.”

  16. I have a blog composed of “the worst things people have said to you about your mental illness.” One I think you missed (?) was said to me by a doctor: So you’ve been told you should never have children, I hope? That’s about the worst one I can imagine, telling someone they should never reproduce.

  17. Bipolarme says:

    Great article with a good list of points.

    Most of these things have been said to me, and I’ve witnessed it being said to others many, many times before. Sometimes it’s with good intention (trying to help) and sometimes with a negative view towards mental illness. The ignorance about mental health is concerning to me.

    I would like to see this list of points circulated more widely – I think it could help a lot of people.

  18. Holly says:

    I had someone who was supposed to be a mentor tell me to grow a pair. But the one that hurt the most was someone who had been a friend of my husband since 3rd grade. He said that I chose to be sick because it was easier than working and contributing to society like a real person.

  19. Sarah says:

    These kinds of comments, such as ‘mental illness is just laziness and attention seeking’ are made by people who have no idea what they are talking about, while at the same time have no idea that they have no idea what they are talking about.

    It’s hard for the puny human brain to tolerate distress in others. Some people respond to this positively by trying to help others in need. Others go into a denial that the other person is distressed. It is this denial that leads to the kinds of comments mentioned above.

    It is not so much that they can’t stand your suffering. It’s just that they don’t want to admit you are fully human, like them, because then they would have to admit that they are vulnerable to the same distress.

  20. c.m.M says:

    To Kathleen Brannon: I’m not sure if you have children so take this for my experience with having one child. Before I was pregnant, I had a fairly regular 26-day bipolar cycle: 2 days of depression followed by a slow, 24-day lifting of mood … to a height of mania that actually was only hypo-mania. I was an introvert, studied and worked about 16-hours a day and I was quiet. As soon as I became pregnant, however, I became very gregarious, my manic highs changed and included anger and rage, rapid thinking so fast that sometimes it felt like I had a breeze going by my ears and I lost my nearly 3 weeks of hypomania. I splintered. I was moody. I had a really bad temper. One night of lost sleep caused mixed-state manias that I could no longer control. Well as much control as you ever have with bipolar. Pregnancy caused a huge change in me; I would say I became incredibly unstable. I’m not sure what pregnancy hormones have to do with mood though. After I was diagnosed, at age 36, I told the psychiatrist that I wanted another child. He said, “Oh no, please don’t do that. I can’t find a medication cocktail that stabilizes you and pregnancy throws everything off.” … When I thought about the changes wrought the first time I was pregnant, I knew he was right. This 26-day bipolar cycle that I have means I’m pretty unstable to begin with, even if I am used to it and live my life by it … I think my 26-day cycle IS stable however; but pregnancy threw that off. And meds don’t work for me, but a structured schedule does. I’m 50 now and never did have another child. I’m not sure if your doctor meant that you shouldn’t reproduce or if he meant that he was at a loss how to treat bipolar disorder once pregnancy hormones are thrown in the mix. I couldn’t, realistically, have survived another pregnancy or, after my baby was born, gone through the months of staying-up-all-night for feedings … My 26-day cycle is my stability but the slightest thing will throw it off. But, at the time my pdoc said those words to me, I laughed at the desperation in his eyes. And no, my pdoc never did find a med cocktail that worked for me. He did admit that “THEY” didn’t know how to treat rapid-cyclers. So I take drugs to sleep, but nothing that stabilizes my mood. I think if bipolar woman do reproduce, they have to keep to a strict schedule of sleep: which means they need help with the night feedings of their infants, and they need to rest during depressions. And they need to know that hormones may change their bipolar cycle, like it did mine. But not reproduce? My daughter is the love of my life and she has come to appreciate my bipolar cycle, now that she knows what it is and can deal with it. When she was small though, I wish I’d known I was bipolar, I could have asked for the help I needed.

  21. Julia says:

    Wow, c.m.M.

    Thanks for sharing all of that.

    Julia

  22. judy says:

    People say such unhelpful things because they really can’t understand what it is like to suffer from bipolar. If they had to deal with the symptoms, and all the negativity that gets thrown your way because of them, I doubt they would do any better. That is what I think of when people make negative comments towards me because of bipolar. However, admittingly, I still get hurt because it still blows me away that people could display such unkindness and ignorance. And that should always be bothersome. Because an unkind heart and ignorance seems to always lead to mean-spirited behavior, done with a sense of self-righteousness.

  23. Cody says:

    Snap out of it? I’m afraid you’ll have to. Even people with mental disorders like Bipolar, Cyclothymia, Borderline Personality Disorder, etc. develop a sense of self-control. Sure, you might want to throw a shoe at someone that pissed you off, or snap at someone that have said one of the following, but even the slightest of the mentally ill have a little self-control.

  24. Ruby Dooby says:

    Cody and others – you are saying what I’m trying to formulate but it’s tricky. Having had and recovered from an illness, or going through an illness does not give one license to constantly point this out ["remember I had this disease for 10 years" , or preach to others about what you've done, or judge others with the same, similar or even NO illness. It becomes ... tiresome? It crosses boundaries of ... manners? Help me here. Aggressively and repeatedly reminding others of what one has gone through or accomplished [surviving mental illness, getting one's Ph.D., loosing 20 pounds] would be what…boring? aggressive? It gets old, that is for sure.

  25. Mm says:

    I suffer from several life-threatening illnesses: heart disease, lung disease, as well as a couple of other gruesome illnesses. I am not on the pity party bandwagon, and when doctors get all “poor you” on me, I often brush them away with “this too shall pass.” BECAUSE IT DOES! One way or another, it WILL pass. I do not have any edge on suffering, and as a person who suffered from suicidal depression for much of my life, I found great comfort in the words, “This too shall pass.” So, speak for yourself! We are not all as thin-skinned as you are, looking for put-downs where none are intended. There are NO people who have no problems. Everyone on the face of this planet is afflicted with something. Don’t act as if mental illness were in a class by itself. It is NOT!

  26. judy says:

    Give it a rest, Mm.
    You really don’t know these people what they’ve really gone through. You certainly can’t know completely from a few lines in a comments section.

    I’m sorry, but you’re out of line.

  27. Hee Saab says:

    William: guilty as charged.

  28. KLM says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish when we are being invalidated intentionally VS when we are dealing with someone who feels helpless to help us and does not know what to say.

  29. Sonya says:

    The one I truly hate is: you know I do that too….
    Usually in relation to me saying I just want to punch someone in the face.
    What this person doesn’t realise is that they may want to punch someone in the face whereas I have not only wanted to, have planned the attack in my head and have to fight the overwhelming urge to make the person who upset me pay for what they have done. Then I have to find some other way to calm down as the anger is still boiling away inside.
    So I guess it’s people minimising the illness to make it sound like you haven’t got a problem because everyone else feels the same way.

  30. Theravive says:

    Thanks for this insight into how our words can affect those struggling with mental illness. It’s so important that we think carefully about what we say, so that we can support people rather than discourage them.

  31. This post is spot on. What’s interesting to me is that although I am not bipolar, I suffered with post traumatic stress disorder, and the more I learn about the bipolar affliction the more it seems that in my years of suffering with PTSD my affliction seemed to mimick the bipolar disorder. The reason I am certain that it was the one and not the other is that the onset was brought on very suddenly by the traumatic event and that has always been quite clear to me. I also was able to discern a very gradual recovery from that trauma over a great many years and finally because today I am fully recovered with no bouts of depression or rage and I have been for quite some time now. I do not take any medications and I am happily married.

  32. Terry G says:

    Unfortunately people think they are helping when saying a number of items on the list. The reality is if they really wanted to help they would research the disorder and learn how to truly help

  33. Patricia Hasselman says:

    I don’t like unsolicited advice on exactly how I should treat my disease, especially when followed by a threat (“until you prove to me that you are doing this, I can’t have anything to do with you.”)

    Why would anyone think that I need to prove anything to them? I am working with my doctors, taking the meds, and trying – oh, that is another good one “if you’re trying, you are lying.” I can’t stand it.

  34. Shelby says:

    This is a very good list. You should add “It’s just the way women are”. My dad tried to use this justification as to why my mom was just “normal” (she was an unmedicated and untreated). Bipolar runs in my family, particularly with the women (though not exactly limited to). Sometimes people try to normalize it with “it seems this many people has it, so it just must not exist”.

  35. Nancy Chaffin says:

    I guess I have had bipolar illness since birth. My mother was on medication for it while pregnant with me. I had a nervous breakdown in college at 18. Chose only counseling no med, because I didn’t know about my mother. Married at 20. Moved far from family. Through hiding it, denial, & being told by husband to pray it away, I have was not put on Medication! until 35. My early life was robbed of quality due to many factors!!! If people would disclose info.& discuss physical and mental concerns it may just save a life!!!!

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