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.
Worst Things to Say to a Person With a Mental Illness
Here are some of my favorite worst things to say to a depressed person or really anyone with a mental illness.
- Snap out of it
- There are a lot of people worse off than you
- You have so many things to be thankful for, how can you be depressed?
- You’d feel better if you got off all those pills
- What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
- Go out and have some fun
- I know how you feel
- So you’re depressed, aren’t you always?
- This too shall pass
- 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:
- They could choose not to be sick if they really wanted
- Their illness is not serious
- They have no “reason” to be ill
- Their treatment is wrong
- They’ll be better off from it
- They would be fine if they would just “go out”
- Their illness is minimal
- Their pain doesn’t matter
- They should just wait for the pain to end
- Their illness is just like anyone else’s problem
- 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
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.
Tracy, N. (2010, September 7). Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2010/09/stop-minimizing-mental-illness-worst-things-to-say
Author: Natasha Tracy
How do I make my daughter and extended family understand why I stay?
Oh yes, the mental health thing isn't easy.
I can understand the urge to stay in bed - believe me, but maybe you can draw some healthy boundaries for yourself where you're not getting "dragged around" but you're also not completely trapped in your bed either. There can be a middle ground.
And if you find that someone sets you off, as you say, then I would recommend talking about that in therapy, if you can. There are reasons it is happening and if you can work through those reasons, you may be able to break the trigger.
What I'm saying is, it doesn't have to be quite so much of a tug-of-war for you. You can take more control. It's tough, but it's doable.
- Natasha Tracy
When I fall back into the pit after a spell of doing well (or seemingly doing well to others), one 'friend' will often ask, "Well, what happened? You were feeling so much better!". It's almost as if she thinks that I've done something wrong to make my moods destabilize.
How you choose to disclose your mental illness and to whom, is of course your choice but I'm saddened to hear you make it a policy not to do it at all. Because, as you say, this means that you can't be honest and open about your life. I do understand your choice, but I hope you find someone you feel comfortable opening up to because not everyone will judge you or treat you badly because of a mental illness. Some people are great supports and by never telling anyone, you're missing out.
- Natasha Tracy
I dont even try and tell people about my MI anymore, because I know I'll just get a dose of this kind of sh*t. I just allow them to think what they want about me. It sucks not being able to be open about my life with friends in particular, but its better than the alternative--not being taken seriously. when Im feeling especially sick I just hide myself away until I feel well enough to come out. Thats just how it is and Ive learned to accept it. Sorta.
At the meetings I went to I heard many of the very same things your post talks about. One I heard a lot is "get a job" and I thought to myself, "ok I can do this, they feel I can."
I got a job working part time and it was enough to bump me off state health care and I lost access to paxil and ended up having to quit cold turkey and had no way to afford a doctor to tell me what to do. It was one of the worst 90 days of my life as the withdrawal from paxil is horrid.
But I was working, we moved, I worked more and somehow thought what I felt must be normal, at least I was productive.
6 years ago I had some kind of mental breakdown and was unable to work again. All the rage, hate and depression flooded back so quick and I got so bad I would go more than a month without bathing, my wife had to make sure I would eat and I refused to seek help since it was such a disaster the first time.
Does mental illness kill? Oh yes!!!! about 15 months ago I had a first heart attack and a 2nd about 4 months ago. The 2nd heart attack I took opportunity to try and end my life by pushing the heart attack. You see I am a heavy smoker and I felt the precursor to the heart attack every time I lit up. I started chain smoking, pacing, trying to force the conclusion of my mental illness.
Heart attacks hurt so much! I want to never feel that kind of pain again. I finally tried to find help but in the state I live in there is not much help for mental illness. Well not much help if you are uninsured and jobless. Many health care plans offered by employers wont even cover mental health treatment.
I had to have a serious manic episode/panic attack just a month after that 2nd heart attack before I was offered a bed for 6 days at a crisis center funded by local community members.
Today I am trying to live, overcome and heal. It is difficult and most of the time I feel alone in it. My wife just doesn't get it and I am at least a triple diagnosis (how far I got 16 years ago). Major depressive, general anxiety and very serious PTSD (2x rape victim).
Good luck getting even some of the doctors to understand.
First, I would like to thank you, Natasha, for both this post as well as the one that accompanied it, "The BEST things to say to...". I have nary a complaint or quibble, which is rare for me!
However, I do have a thought or two to share with @Differrering Perspective (or @Differring Perspective?). I both agree and disagree with your point of view. Disagreement part first: Okay, yes, I understand the concept that mental health is not cut and dry, that there is individual variation along a spectrum. Similarly, I understand that sometimes problems are situational, or start that way. Regarding the latter: There are homeless people who are mentally ill. But not ALL homeless people are mentally ill.
Behavior may initially be a reaction to something situational e.g. traumatic stress. But even though there is a direct causal relationship between the event or events and the pattern of atypical behavior, it doesn't mean it is any less real or less of an impediment to mental health. Or that it goes away, or gets better, even when the stressors are removed.
Substance abuse is not so straightforward as what (I think) I understood you were saying: That users are making a rational choice, and just happen to enjoy using drugs. And that there is nothing wrong with that, other than in the eyes of the dominant culture and social milieau. This is why I disagree: Substance abuse can be an attempt to self-medicate for mental disorders (physical too, e.g. chronic pain). What percentage are the "normal" recreational users versus those with mental health issues, trying to find a way to become, or remain functional? Unknown. Certainly there are some of each.
Trying to say that it is merely a matter of societal context that defines mental health is overly reductive. Certainly when one gets to the point where one is no longer functional e.g. able to keep a job, remember to eat or sleep (which does happen, without any sort of substance abuse), well, it doesn't really matter if it was motivated by a traumatic event or not. Treatment is necessary to survive.
Now for the part where I agree with you: Referring to conditions like Aspberger's as a mental illness troubles me. It troubles me because there is autism, which is a severe mental handicap, including cognitive skills limited to that of a one year old, unable to speak, severe mental retardation. Those children, and the adults they become, require a high level of supportive care, which is scarce and expensive. Diverting scare resources, in terms of public sympathy, energy, awareness AND mental health care-givers, to so-called high-functioning Aspberger's individuals, those who are employed (usually in well-paying jobs as programmers, electrical engineers, PhD level researchers etc), not harming their person nor that of others, well, it doesn't seem right to me. In that sense, I DO agree with you.
Some very intelligent and/ or creative people are perceived as eccentric by others. Some have difficulties relating socially. Describing that as a form of mental illness seems misguided to me. Paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression ARE forms of mental illness. Autism is not mental illness, but it IS mental impairment (autism of the sort I mentioned earlier, where there is profound cognitive impairment, NOT Aspberger's syndrome). For example, everyone in my family other than my mother would probably be diagnosed with Aspberger's. Lots of eccentricity, complete inability to connect with others on an emotional, sometimes even physical level, lots of compulsivity about work habits, intensity, myself included. But here's the difference: I am the only one of us that cries all the time, doesn't like to leave my apartment (for months) and so forth. We all have graduate degrees. But my aunt, brother, father, grandfather, two cousins have careers as rheumatologist, university librarian, cardiologist, attorney, first cellist in a major orchestra, senior management position at Siemans, respectively. Very important: They are quite happy, consistently (even if no one else particularly enjoys their company). I don't consider that being mentally ill.
Another phrase I struggle with when I hear it -- it's fresh in my mind because a mental health nurse said it today -- is "Everyone feels that way."
I know she is trying to comfort me by implying that I'm not a complete wierdo, but I've resolved to tell her at my next appointment that I hear it as minimizing my illness, and wonder if she is trying to convince me that I'm not really ill at all. This is a confusion that has tormented me for most of my adult life. Am I ill or just weak.
I'm very glad to have found your blog. Thanks for being you and writing about it.
Ps, I have done work with homeless individuals and other individuals experiencing mental ‘disorders’. Again, I am not denying that criteria for mental disorders or mean to say they are made up symptoms. I am in favour of assessments and therapy so long as the individual chooses it. I am simply saying it is very cruel of society to label this person as diseased when their 'illness' (again, not mocking the reality – just dislike the term) is a perfectly reasonable response to various stimuli.
Another example – I think post-traumatic stress ‘disorder’ is very real and warrants awareness and resources. But remove the word ‘disorder’. It is a perfectly reasonable response to extreme trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder was originally dubbed “shell shock” - two syllables - almost like the sound of a gun. Soldiers experienced negative emotions after coming back from war. This is not a disorder; this is a consequence of a reality endured. Negativity does not equal disorder. I completely agree that there are some very independently minded individuals out there.
Apologies for going on and on - I may have missed you point entirely.
This is a very well-thought out argument about the social construction of mental illness, the theory of which I understand very well.
Do some work with the mentally ill-homeless for 12 months or so and you will see the social effects on the mentally ill. Also, try telling them that their lives were socially constructed and you will get laughed out of the soup van. There are some very independently minded individuals out there.
Best of luck with your studies.
"Why is it that just because I see a psychiatrist and you see a neurologist your disease is real and mine is not?"
My biggest issue currently with psychology is not whether or not the behaviours, thoughts (symptoms) of mental 'diseases' are real, but the fact that I don't believe they should be called diseases. Society sets up a framework that most people can function from and make a life for themselves. In turn, society labels people of differing emotions and behaviours to have a ‘disease’- labelling these emotions and behaviour as maladaptive (which, within society, they certainly can be) when the individual is no longer able to maximize their priority, and in turn, contribute to the society that raised them. Many people take advantage of the fact that being an individual comes naturally, and that knowing what to do with your life comes naturally - it most certainly is a difficult quest, and philosophers have been concerning themselves with this since the dawn of time. I'm not arguing that the symptoms of certain circumstances do not present themselves in what we now classify as 'mental illness' (that is, I absolutely know first-hand that the symptoms in diagnosing mental illnesses are very much so present and affect tons of individuals) I just think these 'diseases' are in fact human responses that are often times justifiable, and as r.d lang once stated, "Insanity - a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world".
In short, this is why I personally think having cancer or aids is a disease whereas bipolar is not. While there is some research of demonstrating the etiology of mental illness, I still stand where I do.
I understand your point about the word "commit." There are a number of different phrases that people use to refer to the act of suicide such as "completed suicide" and some people are very particular about them. I try to use care when writing about the subject for that reason and will take your point of view into consideration.
I'm sorry to hear of your husband, and no, he didn't commit any crimes.
Thank-you for your comment.
Could I make one request? Rather than referring to the act of suicide as "committed suicide" could it be rephrased to "suicided?" The reason for this request is because using the word "commit" makes suicide sound like a crime. In the 70's in Canadian law, attempted self murder WAS considered a crime and people were then sent to mental institutions to "fix" them. Doesn't seem quite right does it? Very cold solution for a very real problem.
In order to remove the stigma surrounding suicide, we have to change our wording. Suicide is not a crime. It is the result of untreated mental illness.
My husband died of suicide last summer. He was the most loving, warm, caring, generous person I ever knew. But he didn't commit any crimes.
Thank you again for sharing and raising awareness of this horrible disease called mental illness.
Ah, well thank-you.
I don't really like to think of it as being "at-war" with anyone, although, granted, it does feel like that sometimes. I feel like I'm playing defence a lot. Maybe like a hockey game. I am Canadian, after all.
I like to say "that which does not kill us makes us bitter." Well, OK, I stole that from Chuck Lore, but still, I like to say it.
If only I could define "required reading" for people... the world would be just peachy.
Hopefully it helps you and yours.
[...]Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say | Breaking Bipolar - HealthyPlace[...]...
Those that are looking from the outside in are not able to understand what those who are going through such a thing are going through. In their way of trying to help they use words and phases such as their illness is in their head, or they just need to get over it. Another one that is used is to try and take away from it by saying there are worse things out there, or someone else has it harder then they do. To one that is struggling what they are facing is real to them and is a concern. In others knowing that what they face is legit they can get support which helps them get through anything they are facing.
You're welcome. It's one of my favourite messages to give people - you're not alone.
I can't tell you how sorry I am that you have had these experiences. Many people are with you on this. Many people have been yelled at by preachers. Many people have been told their illness doesn't exist. Many people treat mental illness like a little personal flaw like biting your nails.
You are not alone in those experiences.
But this stems from ignorance. Your family is ignorant. They just, plain, don't know what they're talking about. You need to remember that when they say things that make no sense.
If possible, you could help by educating them. Print some information off the internet (this post if you like) get a good book, or take someone you trust to therapy with you. You can help them become understanding once they have the knowledge to do so.
But it's possible that your family may never be able to give you what you need. That is a fact of life. Some of us are in that position.
Well, hear this -
- there are people who understand and who will support you.
I promise. There are people like me and everyone else who has responded here who understand what you're going through. You are not alone.
Maybe you could join a mental health support group, people often find they feel less alone when they do that. (Google NAMI for a starting place.)
You deserve better. You have an illness and it's about time people stood beside you so you could fight that illness together.
i guess i should clarify, my comments. they were not directed to anyone n particular, just running off at the mouth. i read some of the comments left here. it makes me so sad that we are in fact abused and at times not even aware of it. family members that don't understand, organization...A.A. (no resentment there-as she snickers under her breath), and the people that know you but DON'T know you, the ones that say those things about wanting to trade lives with you because of the car i drive, the house i live in, the way i look on the outside. that mask i put on before going out the door. that is when i can get out the door or the bed for that matter. i'm sure none of them could even imagine the pain and suffering that we go through to even want to breath on some days. would they want to trade lives with me these last 3 weeks? i've been in my jammies, haven't showered in a week. i wake up to go back to sleep and then wait for bed time to go back to sleep AGAIN!
it's been pretty bad this time, if not for my son, "tourette boy" telling me "I FUCKING LOVE BARENEE" (his nickname for me, and he does HAVE tourette's) i don't know what i would have done. he's the best cheerleader i have,when he knows i'm "sick" he shakes my head and says, "bad fucking head, you leave barenee alone" if he only knew that he might have just saved my life. blessings to you all! i'm going to bed.....YAWN
I quoted your comment and did a video commentary on the dynamic: http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2011/06/what-are-you-bipolar-mental-illness-as-a-weapon-video/