Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say

Tuesday, September 7 2010 Natasha Tracy

Some people say the worst things to a person with mental illness. They're hurtful and minimize mental illness. Read and see what I mean.

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.

Worst Things to Say to a Person With a Mental Illness

Some people say the worst things possible to a person with mental illness and minimize mental illness. Read and see what I mean.Here are some of my favorite worst things to say to a depressed person or really anyone 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.

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

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 a mental illness if you think any one of these are appropriate. I suggest trying it with other physical health problems 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.

Let’s Not Forget, People Die From Mental Illness

Here are the worst things to say to a person with mental illness. Isn't it time you stop minimizing 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.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitterGoogle+ and Facebook.

View all posts by Natasha Tracy.

Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say

Adriana
says:
September, 7 2010 at 3:29 pm

Thank you so much, I'll show your text to my friends and family because besides my disease I have to deal with EVERYTHING you wrote! Thanks again!!!

Gretchen
says:
September, 7 2010 at 5:39 pm

I also thank you. Not only have I been hearing these comments and others all my life, but I have also said these things to myself. I am starting to show myself more compassion.

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 7 2010 at 6:10 pm

Hi Adriana,

Many of us can definitely identify with that. Please share to all you can. We crazies need to stick together and demand respect.

- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 7 2010 at 6:12 pm

Hi Gretchen,

I've told myself these things too. The really sad thing is we use the awful things that other people say to beat ourselves up. It just another part of the disorder.

But yes, please be kind and gentle with yourself. You deserve it.

You're welcome, of course.

- Natasha

kate
says:
September, 8 2010 at 6:23 am

yeah. and I'm in no way knocking anyone's spiritual beliefs, but really, unless you know someone is interested in religion, do *not* tell them, "just give it to god". it ain't that easy.

Lisa
says:
September, 8 2010 at 10:07 am

Thank you so much! I know my friends mean well when they suggest that I just need to get out more or have a date night with my husband. But what they don't understand is that I don't want to leave the house, I can barely leave the couch, and I love my husband, but he, and all other people, are bothering the shit out of me right now, so no, I don't think going out is going to solve the problem.

Mike
says:
September, 8 2010 at 10:40 am

Boy is this timely. Just last night my boss stopped by my office to tell me that he has noticed that I have seemed "down" for the past couple of weeks (he is aware of my diagnosis of Bipolar II.) I can usually put on my "Happy at Work" face and get by but this has been a particualrly bad episode for me. His "suggestion" was for me to "Get out and have some fun!" "Call your friends. Go out and have a couple of beers and a Pizza. Put a smile on your face." Instead, I went home and took some Klonapin.

Lesa
says:
September, 8 2010 at 4:04 pm

Hi. I totally relate to this experience. The 'go out and have some fun' is a classic I have heard many times. Sorry but a few drinks and a meal out is just not going to cut it. And I have found myself making excuses too - like saying; 'there are many people with much more difficult problems than I - I should be thankful' But I don't feel like being thankful for a disorder today. Or any day. And absolutely - this is not a choice - this is not feeling sorry for myself. I hate the excuses and the feeling of being 'weak minded' I am over it. Other people should only comment if they UNDERSTAND. And mostly - they don't...

pooja
says:
September, 9 2010 at 9:54 am

oh my god!

summed up my anger,bitterness,resentment,self reproach so well.after hearing these helpful comments from others there is this whole cycle of self reproach that usually follows when u now repeat these statements to yourself and judge yourself for obviously not trying hard enough since u pretty much stand where u were!....there's more self loathing,more depression and more 'help' from others.and so it goes on....

well written!

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 9 2010 at 10:50 am

Kate,

I completely agree. Telling someone anything from a religion is just a poke in the eye. Not only does it say "you're not doing the right thing" but it also says, "you don't even have the right belief system to get better."

It's really tough to take.

- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 9 2010 at 10:51 am

Hi Lisa and Mike,

Yup, it sounds it sounds like you've been there, or are there right now. These people are trying to be helpful, but gosh is it not.

- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 9 2010 at 10:54 am

Hi Lesa,

Yeah, I get that "weak minded" comment. I have wasted so much time beating myself up for not magically "fixing" my bipolar disorder. And these type of comments can bring it back.

I'm glad you're over it. Stay over it.

- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 9 2010 at 10:54 am

Pooja,

Thank-you. I'm glad it resonated for you.

- Natasha

Lyn
says:
September, 10 2010 at 12:37 am

I can relate to all of these comments. I think that is why I have not told many people about my bipolar disorder. A couple of years ago I was in hospital after a suicide attempt, my sister-in-law visited me and I can still remember her comment like it was yesterday. She said "We just thought you were putting it on and would get over it".
Sometimes you just have a bad day nothing to do with suffering from bipolar and the people that you have told will say oh are you on a downer because of your bipolar...I just want to say NO I'm just having a bad day like lots of people. Very frustrating.

Lyn :)

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 10 2010 at 1:15 pm

Hi Lyn,

It's shocking that it takes a suicide attempt for someone to believe you have an illness and take you seriously. I'm sorry you had to go through that.

Yes, others can be very frustrating. What I have found is that the longer I have this disorder and the more I know the more confident I am around other people. Eventually it doesn't matter if they believe you.

- Natasha

j.
says:
September, 16 2010 at 10:17 am

Yep. That's a pretty spot on list, if you ask me.

online violin lessons
says:
September, 19 2010 at 12:59 pm

Hello, my group is just establishing our initial website, searching and working out whats required. This blog stuck out correct away. Im fired up about this, and adore the style of your site. Are you able to let me know what theme it is?,

diana
says:
September, 21 2010 at 5:42 am

This is a great post. But I do wanna mention that people do say such stupid things about non-mental illnesses all the time also, we get no magic privileges there. I thought this was a good post about it:

http://avendya.dreamwidth.org/177534.html

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 21 2010 at 8:23 am

Diana,

Admittedly, I hadn't considered that, but I suppose it's true. You're right, the post you linked to does lay it out well, but for the record, I have no desire to dismiss anyone else's experience with similar issues.

- Natasha

Kassiane
says:
September, 21 2010 at 5:21 pm

People DO say stuff like that to epileptics (at least this epileptic) all the time. I kind of want to spork them, regardless of who they say it to.

Another favorite for my mentally ill cousin AND for me: "don't you take medicine or something for that?"

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 21 2010 at 5:30 pm

Kassiane,

Spork them? Oh, do post pictures of that. Can you imagine the police report? "Officer, I was sporked! Drop the spork and step away slowly!"

Ahem.

Yeah, medicine. Suppresses all seizures and all crazy. Spork indeed. They asked for it.

- Natasha

lilacsigil
says:
September, 21 2010 at 5:48 pm

I have both a mental and physical illness and while the comments are pretty similar on both - as your excellent list shows - there's definitely more on the mental illness. Except for "thinking positive". Apparently "thinking positive" is just amazing for cancer and other long-term physical illnesses.

Kath
says:
September, 21 2010 at 11:03 pm

I totally agree with these all except for "I know how you feel." but with one caveat... that the person saying "I know how you feel" actually suffers a mental illness themselves. Few things have helped me more with my anxiety disorders and depression than having someone who knows how I feel.

But yeah, if someone doesn't suffer from a mental illness, "I know how you feel" can be the wrong thing to say!

The Untoward Lady
says:
September, 22 2010 at 5:51 am

As an autistic woman I've had almost everything you've described in spades. Especially the idea that my pain is minimal. In fact, I remember when I was a child not too long ago in special education I had a teacher who used to tell me that I was lying when I expressed emotional distress because she believed that "people like me" are incapable of conceptualizing the idea of emotional pain much less feel it and instead I must be faking pain in order to get preferential treatment. I haven't had this same attitude brought up to my face like this in my adult life but I'll never be able to forget this. That, and reading things on the Internet remind me that she wasn't the only person who believes that.

As for minimizing my disability I have yet to have my autism brought up when someone somewhere in the conversation doesn't make comments about how I could be "so much worse" or how "high-functioning" I am, which is just code for "it's not that serious, get over it."

"I feel your pain" is probably, for me, the most hurtful, though. I already struggle a lot with self blame about my difficulties doing certain things. When I tell someone that I have executive memory failures because of my condition which cause me to be unable to remember things I have to do the appropriate response isn't "oh, I know how you feel, you see I forget to do things sometimes too." No, no you don't understand because forgetting to do things once in a while and being unable to get your work done because of it are on a whole different level. And don't ever tell me that you have social problems, too. Unless you are autistic, they are NOT THE SAME!

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 22 2010 at 6:10 am

Hi lilacsigil,

Yes, I find the "positive-thinking" crow incredibly annoying and self-righteous.

People often attribute recovering from an illness as due to "a positive attitude" and "never giving up". Well, that's fine, but I think you might be overlooking a key factor - the medicine.

These think positive people think they're better than everyone else because they could positively think themselves out of "anything". Of course, that's ridiculous. The fact that they think that simply indicates that they haven't been tested the way some others have.

- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 22 2010 at 6:20 am

Hi The Untoward Lady,

I would say that autism is a highly-misunderstood disease. It's another brain disease. People don't really get that. People don't get brain diseases.

As for what was said to you as a child, well, that's just the epitome of ignorance. While difficult, I would write those comments off as to stupid to even address.

I can understand how frustrated you might be when someone says you're "high-functioning" or that it "could be worse". I get that all the time, and yes it does minimize what people go through.

Here's the thing though, humans have a natural inclination to try to "make things better". To see the bright side. It's just a human thing. They don't want to see illness and pain so they try to make it seem less sick and painful. It's not about you, it's about them. It's not about minimizing your disorder as much as it is about making themselves feel better. Looking on the bright side is something we all do, and something we all need to do from time to time, but I can understand why it feels dismissing.

And yeah, I know the "oh, yeah, I forget stuff too sometime". Really? Do you forget months? Do you forget the name of 80% of the people you meet? Is your brain charred and hollowed from drugs? Arg. Yes. Frustrating.

Quick note, have you read anything by Oliver Sacks? He's a doctor that works with neurological disorders and his book

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

is absolutely amazing. It explores the brain, and illnesses of the brain in a way that I've never seen before. And there are a couple of autistic case studies that I found very illuminating. I admit, I am not the most educated person when it comes to autism, but this book put it, and other disorders in a new light for me. I highly recommend it.

- Natasha

meerkat
says:
September, 22 2010 at 8:40 pm

Unfortunately I know people who think "we create our own reality" applies to all kinds of illnesses including cancer. Your negative thoughts gave you cancer! Gahhh.

R.J.
says:
September, 22 2010 at 11:10 pm

working on one's confidence, or ability to function or maintian is rough enough at sometimes, without one being under the cloud of ignnorance or stigmas. Especially when being mostly high a functioning individual, I might not be as bad off as some people, but illneness is still a reality. ............. All we can do is hang for the ride ! Be Well All

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 23 2010 at 6:28 am

Meerkat,

That's true, it's not just us. People do say horrible things to people with many illnesses, but I've never seen so many as for mental illness. (Negative thoughts? You should hear them now...)

- Natasha

jocelyn
says:
September, 23 2010 at 7:06 am

I've actually had someone who hardly knows me tell me that i do these things for attention. I had been baker acted for cutting from my last panic attack, when i have attacks i dont think, its like an animal takes over and I have to do something to calm myself down, for several years i cut my body up due to panic attacks. I have never sat there and contemplated whether or not to harm myself, so when the term "emo" comes up i just laugh because of the sure ignorance of people. Its not a joke, i have known people who come to school with scratches on their arms out for all the world to see, thats seeking attention or help. Its the people who come to school in 90 degree weather with a jacket on to hide the EMBARRASSMENT of what they have done to themselves that need to speak up to someone who will help.

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 23 2010 at 7:46 am

Hi Jocelyn,

Obviously someone telling you you're doing it as a "cry for help" is an attempt to minimize your pain. Which is not appropriate.

But I have a slightly different take. All those people out there with scratches, crying for help, have pain too, and need help too. There's nothing wrong with a cry for help. Yes, there are more constructive ways to get it, but if crying in public with scratches is the best you can do, then it's the best you can do.

- Natasha

Sam
says:
September, 26 2010 at 6:03 pm

I have lived with a person that had a mental illness which to me appeared to be a bipolar disease (after reading the details on the Internet). I must say that it very difficult for the immediate family & even the medical staff to deal with such a person. Here in India I see that the general public and general medical staff mostly lack sensitivity & understanding about the mental illnesses. and again, thankfully, the person I mentioned above is stable for last 2 years and quite normal.

R
says:
September, 27 2010 at 1:22 am

I live in an area where any display of weakness causes one to be shunned and frowned upon. Either no one understands, or they just don't care. I've been battling with depression since a very young age, which I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. I've been on and off of various medications and plenty of visits to different psychiatrists. It seems everyone I've ever known has more or less the same views and opinions which you've mentioned. "Snap out of it", "Why are you like this?" "You don't appreciate life", etc. I've heard them all. I've reached the conclusion that a HUGE portion of the general population will never truly understand. They don't realize how much misery and pain they cause with their ignorance.

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 27 2010 at 9:05 am

Hi Sam and R,

It's true, in different places and in different cultures, people do have more or less tolerance for mental illness. It's tough if you live in a less tolerant place.

But what I will say is that by both of you speaking out, you're making a difference to everyone, and that's how change happens.

Thank-you!

- Natasha

Sorcha
says:
September, 30 2010 at 2:03 am

I suffer from depression, but as a usually high functioning depressive I get a lot of this. The 'getting out more' advice is a particularly annoying one. Because feeling lonely in a crowd, the downer of drink followed by a hangover combined with sleep deprivation are exactly what the doctor ordered!!

Amy
says:
September, 30 2010 at 5:22 am

Thank you so much for writing this. I'm forwarding it to my mother-in-law who is a major trigger of my depression and anxiety and has said all of these things to me at one time or another. Another statement I heard just this morning from someone who doesn't understand this disease was "What are they f**ked? Are they braindead to go and want to hang themselves off a bridge." I wanted to explain to the person that they don't really know what is going on in another person's head, instead of saying what they said they should see how they can help or even listen.

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 30 2010 at 7:55 am

Sorcha,

Yeah, other people think a night of partying will "make you feel better" just because it makes _them_ feel better. People see things through their own lens and forget that sick people don't function like everyone else. We're extremely sensitive. Like a fine, handcrafted, Swiss watch. You can't just throw us around and expect us to like it.

- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
says:
September, 30 2010 at 7:58 am

Hi Amy,

I hope this brings new light on what these statements do for your Mother-in-Law. I do believe that most people don't want to trigger us, but they just don't fully appreciate what they are saying or doing and the kind of effect that it has.

Good luck. Remember, even if she never gets it, you do. Let your own inner-voice silence hers.

- Natasha

new health news
says:
October, 1 2010 at 1:20 pm

Unfortunately I know people who think “we create our own reality” applies to all kinds of illnesses including cancer. Your negative thoughts gave you cancer! Gahhh.

Wes
says:
October, 2 2010 at 4:30 am

when i was hospitalised one of the workers (she clearly wasn't a dr) told me some of these things: "give it to god", "how bad has my life been to want to kill myself", etc. I wanted to strangle that b-tch! if nothing else, that was one of many motivators for me to lie my way out of the hospital ward. i mean i could understand family members saying that to me, but hospital workers? no, totally unacceptable.

Voice of Dissent
says:
October, 8 2010 at 8:42 am

I'd just like to address some points. I don't deny the fact that mental disease is an illness and people with such illnesses, like anyone else, should be treated with respect and dignity.

However, what I'm seeing here, is a lot of denial about some good ways in which people have come OUT of disease; Yes, positive thinking CAN help - not only in mental illnesses, but in physical diseases as well. Recovery from cancer rates have been shown to be better in people who were more positive and optimistic about their outlook than in those who were negative and pessimistic. Bad things happen to everybody - for example, throughout my childhood (beginning from the age of about 9 till beyond high school), I was bullied, ignored, had no friends, was treated with pure disgust and contempt by most of my peers, didn't go out to parties, didn't have a boyfriend - Of course I was sad (I'm not going to say depressed because of the clinical connotations this has), had major self-esteem issues (and still sometimes do), had a pretty hefty inferiority complex ... and I was able to work through these issues and become in all respects, a successful contributer to society, with great friends and a supportive family. Not on meds, not in therapy - just on my own, because I was able to continuously believe in myself and maintain a positive outlook.

Now, I'm NOT saying that medication or therapy is bad - of course they are not, they help people work through their problems. And I know a lot of people have problems more significant than min, which is perhaps why they have an illness ... I don't know.

Perhaps the reason those people who give such advice are NOT sick is BECAUSE they know how to apply that advice. I personally, don't think any harm ever came from thinking positively. Just try it :) It's not so bad ... everyday, go stand in front of the mirror, take 5 mintes, really look at yourself and say positive things about yourself. Tell yourself you're beautiful, loved; find the things that most make you happy and say thanks for them, tell yourself that you deserve good things and you are a valuable, important member of society....try it...it might help.

I'm not trying to be controversial or offensive, I'm just coming from a different perspective. Best wishes to all.

rainbowdancers
says:
October, 9 2010 at 11:57 am

natasha, thanks for writing and eloquently saying what i have felt like for years. it does hurt when people say these things and the fact that they are trying to be nice but are so very clueless does not make it better. ignorance breads ignorance. it feels so utterly hopeless to me when such a large portion of the population still have archaic belifs about mental illness....why not just lobotomize me???

have you thought of publishing parts of your blog with NAMI who advocates for us and particularly fights stigma or even SAMHSA newsletters to reach a wider audience? it would be nice to see this blog in a SAMHSA newsletter. thanks again for writing a blog that touches so many.

captainjohann
says:
October, 9 2010 at 9:30 pm

Hi Natasha Tracy,
I got this link toady only but it is a brilliant view point of a sufferer.But i wish you have given some input to carers who love their child "what to say" which will not hurt or affront them.
Mostly the people who say these things are the parents, spouces or may be even children with good intention as due to the input given by mental health professional or just they think it is the correct thing to do.
By the way being SILENT is part of conversation as i understand but you seem to think just being left alone will help.
do enlighten a carer who loves his daughter.

kavita sharma
says:
October, 10 2010 at 3:49 am

i am glad that you have been so sensitive and understanding. even when you are feeling depressed it is horrible to hear people saying snap out of it etc. thank you for saying what you did

Natasha Tracy
says:
October, 10 2010 at 6:35 am

Hi rainbowdancer,

Don't get a lobotomy. Icepicks are out this year ;)

As for my writings here, they are owned by HealthyPlace so other publication would have to be in conjunction with them. I agree, it's something for me to look into though, for these writings or others. Thanks for the suggestion and the compliment.

- Natasha

Natasha Tracy
says:
October, 10 2010 at 6:36 am

Hi captainjohann,

Thank-you for bringing up this point. I agree, it's important to note what good things are to say to the mentally ill. This would be quite a long answer and deserves a post of its own.

Good idea.

- Natasha

Donna Kocurek
says:
October, 10 2010 at 3:27 pm

Sometimes, mentally ill people learn bad behaviors because they are allowed to. Sometimes, mentally ill people do need to be told to stop playing the pity party game and to "snap" out of it because they are feeling sorry for themselves. I beleive if you are told this, then maybe you should evaluate why. Not all people are wishing to be rude, but gently want to say, "just maybe you should look at it a little differently". I am mentally ill and have been for a long time. Those who loved me enough to make me face that bad behavior are my reason I have been so successful in my recovery. Just a thought!

Natasha Tracy
says:
October, 11 2010 at 7:10 am

Hi Donna,

I certainly agree that when anyone does something to hurt another person that warrants a conversation. I would hope that friends would tell me when I have hurt them, absolutely.

However there is no reason to tell someone to "snap" out of anything, mentally ill or not. If someone wants to tell you to "look at things differently" that's certainly their right, but there's no reason they can't say it just like that.

There are many ways to express the same point and some work better than others. I've also never told an alcoholic, a grieving widow, someone with cancer, or someone who just lost their job to snap out of it either. I just don't think it's the right way to go.

- Natasha

maya madan
says:
October, 13 2010 at 10:03 pm

Dear Natasha,

People want to be helpful and say the natural encouraging words that come to mind. Could you suggest some helpful ways to speak to a person who is going this disorder? Thanks for your concern and effort to be helpful.

Love,

Maya Madan

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