A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the worst things to say to a person with a mental illness. This ended up becoming a very popular article. I think that’s because most of us have heard some or all of these dismissive things from people in our lives.
But a commenter posed an excellent question: What are the best things to say to someone with a mental illness?
Best Things to Say to a Person with a Mental Illness
- I love you
- What can I do to help?
- This must be very hard for you
- I am there for you, I will always be there for you
- You are amazing, beautiful and strong and you can get through this
- Have you seen your doctor/therapist?
- You never have to apologize for your illness or for feeling this way
- I’m not scared of you
Why These Are Great Things to Say
These statements show that you recognize that the person is sick; you recognize that they’re in pain you don’t understand, and that you will be there for them. These are great things no matter what the illness is and really, no matter whom the person is.
These Are Supportive Things to Say
What you are really saying, or implying:
- The three best words in the English language. It shows that you care about the person in spite of their illness. We need reminding.
- This shows that you really want to help in a way that works for the person.
- You’re validating their feelings and illness. As we often get the opposite, this is a gift.
- You’re showing the person that you really are there for them and that you’re not going anywhere. Every human has a fear of abandonment and we perhaps more than most as we often see people leave us due to our mental illness.
- These compliments very person-to-person but basically our brain is attacking who we are and skewing our self-perception. If you can bring some reality to the table it’s appreciated. And honestly, we might not seem to believe you, but it helps to hear it anyway.
- This is a tricky one but I do think it’s important to encourage professional help in whatever form that takes. We get so sick we don’t do this and by saying this to us you’re reinforcing that we need to do it and you’re saying it in a loving way. You could offer to make, drive to or come to an appointment.
- We feel bad about being sick. Really. Guilty. And guilty and scared about being sick around you. By saying that we don’t have to apologize, you’re telling us that you accept us and our illness and we don’t have to apologize for something outside of our control. (This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t apologize for behaving badly, that everyone should do.)
- You’re reinforcing that you love us and we’re not driving you away. Everyone’s scared of our illness, including us. We need to know that you’re not terrified that we’ll suddenly explode like TNT lit by Wile E. Coyote.
It’s Hard to Say the Right Thing
I admit, these are hard things to say. They’re hard things to say to anyone and they’re certainly hard things to say to someone suicidal. I recognize that. Everyone’s human. We don’t always pick the right box.
So every conversation doesn’t contain all eight items. No one could expect it would. If you just feel comfortable saying one, that’s perfectly OK. But if the basic ideas of love, acceptance, support, acknowledgment and help can be remembered, the conversations can go better whatever their flow.
And hey, if you’ve had these things said to you, say thanks. We should all appreciate such kindness.