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Supporting the Mentally Ill: Best Things to Say

Having a mental illness is like carrying around a sharp shame, so what can loved ones say to help someone who is mentally ill? More at Breaking Bipolar Blog.

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?

Here are some of the best things you can say to a person with mental illness:

  1. I love you
  2. What can I do to help?
  3. This must be very hard for you
  4. I am there for you, I will always be there for you
  5. You are amazing, beautiful and strong and you can get through this
  6. Have you seen your doctor/therapist?
  7. You never have to apologize for your illness or for feeling this way
  8. I’m not scared of you

Why These Are Great Things to Say to Support Someone With a Mental Illness

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.

What you are really saying, or implying:

  1. The three best words in the English language. It shows that you care about the person in spite of their illness. We need reminding.
  2. This shows that you really want to help in a way that works for the person.
  3. You’re validating their feelings and illness. As we often get the opposite, this is a gift.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.)
  8. 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.

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 Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

36 thoughts on “Supporting the Mentally Ill: Best Things to Say”

  1. Wow! This one generated some conversation! I didn’t read all the comments, but almost. To Bruce, it sounds like your brother in law may have addiction issues as well as mental. Where could all the money go? Addiction seriously derails any hope for management of a mental issue. I will pray for your situation. Information like we get here is really the best thing I’ve found.
    My step mom should be the poster child for what and what not to say. She is such a blessing to me. She lost a really good friend to Bipolar. “Accidental” overdose….. But she has also been there for me more and more since then, with my struggle. 23 years. She says,” I’d love to see you. I don’t care if you don’t have much to say. I have plenty to say. You can listen, or not, just smile and pretend occasionally. I love you and miss you.” She also found a meme on FB that is great. It says, “When you heart is breaking for someone who is broken, but you’re words can’t reach them and your love can’t save them, ask the angels to go where you cannot. To whisper into their heart what their ears can’t hear: “We will not give up on you. Don’t give up on yourself.”- Sandra Kring

    Also, I was fired from my job after 13 years there. I’ve been out of work for 2 years now and am contemplating finding another job, maybe part time. I’m not sure if I am able to work now. So I feel the struggle of the other commenter in that regard. (Sorry, I guess I have a computer virus and can’t scroll back for fear of losing my post.) Anyway, I’m going to get my resume together and give it a shot.

    Thanks again for the post Natasha and all the comments too. At least we can struggle together! Peace

  2. I wished my husband had read this after I was diagnosed with bipolar. He has always been a hard person to express my feelings to and as my illness progressed he never had the time to support me or take the time to learn about the disease. His inability to be supportive has triggered my bipolar moments. I tried to tell him he lacked empathy, but he felt that was my problem not his. I m separated from him right now because of the way he has treated me. I feel so much better now that we’re not together. Being cold toward someone with BP does not help. Maybe someday, I can show him your post if and when he has a soft heart.

  3. It’s very hard to say any of these things and mean it to someone with bipolar or anyone else for that matter who verbally abuses you and won’t appologize. Just because they are ill is no excuse. At some point you just have to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! I’m done trying to support you when won’t do anything to help yourself. There comes a time when the healthy one asks themself what am I getting out of the this relationship, ie in deeper and deeper in debt (with no income from the manic spouse because they are too disabled to work) no sex (and who would want to have sex with someone anyway when they smell so bad because they can’t manage to even take a shower). When I have to work for a living and take care of the kids and do most of the household chores because they’re too sick and don’t have any energy to do much except sleep most of their day away

    Well I’m tired too. Sick and tired of having to be the one who does all the giving as well as the one who is expected to forgive and forget all the the horrible verbal abuse dished out by an ungrateful ill partner who threatens suicide every time I attempt to leave (which is emotional blackmail as far as I’m concerned)

  4. Hi , I have paranoid schizophrenia since age 25. I read this article and I agree with everything you say , but I’m not sure that being schizophrenic I are sick all the time. So I do not agree with some expressions like “mental illness” because I consider it more a personality. We need to expand the language. I will not be always seen as a sick. I do not want to always look like a sick man! Thank for you article and sorry for my bad english, I am from Argentina.

  5. When one has a physical health problem, they see a doctor or specialist and get treatment. The same thing one does when symptoms occur within their mental frame; you contact your doctor and get started on healing. If you had pneumonia, would you selfishly go to work and spread your germs so everyone else gets sick _ of course not! People do get mentally ill either due to a tragedy or loss of a loved one, etc., and it is in their best interest to secure the proper treatment for themselves so they can at least try and live a somewhat normal life. No one is that high up on the ladder that nothing bad can escape them. Turning your back on help is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. So get down off your high horse and acknowledge the fact you are human and need help. End of story. There are times when the riot act needs to be read to someone you love.

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