Supporting the Mentally Ill: Best Things to Say

Tuesday, October 12 2010 Natasha Tracy

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 BurbleTwitterGoogle+ and Facebook.

View all posts by Natasha Tracy.

Supporting the Mentally Ill: Best Things to Say

Jasmin
says:
October, 18 2010 at 3:45 pm

This is a wonderful article ! Its perfect. My long story short is that I never knew my father growing up, and I am 34 now, and I decided this year that I wanted to try to find him. I had alot of help through a man that has known him almost all of his life. I found him, he is living in a home for people with mental and/or physical disabilities, because he has paranoid schizophrenia. it kind of shocked me at first a little ( although I had a little indication from the person who helped me that he might have had some sort of mental illness ). But, I am not the kind of person to run away because of that. I still wanted to have contact with him and the nurses have been very helpful, and we have now spoken twice on the phone and I cannot put into words what it feels like to have this contact with him, and he is VERY happy too. I think this will be good for him and me.

Thank you,

Natasha Tracy
says:
October, 18 2010 at 5:15 pm

Hi Jasmin,

Thanks.

It's great to hear your father's illness isn't scaring you off. That speaks very highly of you.

Thanks for your comment.

- Natasha

Meriel
says:
October, 21 2010 at 12:44 pm

Thanks for your great insights, I really enjoy your blog. Another thing my best friend used to say which was great is ' I love your crazyness'. This is especially good since it does not imply that you are loved in spite of your crazy. Of course, this (and surely all of the above statements) really should only be used when they are entirely true.

Natasha Tracy
says:
October, 21 2010 at 4:50 pm

Hi Meriel,

Thanks. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

I agree, that's a great thing to say. And yes, ideally when you say something, it should be true :)

- Natasha

Bill
says:
October, 21 2010 at 7:43 pm

Thanks Natasha for a great article! It's too bad that the rest of the world doesn't see things the way you see them.

Gail
says:
October, 21 2010 at 7:51 pm

I loved this article. I'm sending it to my family. Some have tried to understand and some don't seem to want to. Maybe this will open their eyes, not mainly with me, but as they go through life and come accross people who are struggling. I lost a bi-polar friend about 3 years ago and it still really makes me sad. I have to think what we might have all done differently to help him get to a better place, and he could have. I wish I had had a change to talk to him and wish many of us had told him all of these things.
gail

Natasha Tracy
says:
October, 22 2010 at 3:36 pm

Hi Bill,

thanks for the comment. Actually, I think we can help others see things this way. Hopefully each of us, in some small way can affect others to understand a little more.

Gail,

I'm sorry to hear about your friend. That's really tough. Now you have the opportunity to show people a better way. Of course, it doesn't bring anyone back, but I like to think I might be able to help someone else that might be on the edge.

- Natasha

Dr Musli Ferati
says:
October, 23 2010 at 11:33 am

In spite of that, the profession of psychiatrist is very intriguing matter; I remember a Muslem pilgrin with depressive disorder and suicidal behavior, whom one quotation of Koran dramatically changed his siucidal temptation. The same person after hearing this prayer began to smile and request to treat us with refreshing drink. I think that the real recognition of world-outlook of patient is important cue in helping the desperate person. This don't deny the role of supporting the mentally ill person with compassion.

Anniem
says:
May, 20 2011 at 11:00 am

When things are really really bad, my husband always says: "I'm not going anywhere." And yes, for as much as I truly desperately hold on to that promise, said over and over and over, there are times I just want to smack him. Boy, do I make sense or what?

Natasha Tracy
says:
May, 20 2011 at 11:24 am

Hi Anniem,

Well, you make as much sense as anyone else. Psychology is a funny beastie that way.

It's wonderful to have someone in your life say such a thing. You're lucky. Which I'm sure you know. Contradictory feelings are still normal. (And probably a sign of passion.)

But maybe next time you think smack, you can also think wonderful. You know, just to temper things a bit.

- Natasha

Adam
says:
October, 23 2011 at 6:50 pm

This is a great article. You often hear what not to say, but don't hear as often what should be said...

Natasha Tracy
says:
October, 24 2011 at 8:57 am

Hi Adam,

Yup. I think it's important to know both because many people do want to help but just don't know how.

- Natasha

Halley
says:
November, 12 2011 at 9:47 am

I have borderbone pd, and like others, I constantly hear those negative statements. They make me want to scream! im very excited to find these positive things. my boyfriend tries so hard to be there for me, even thoigh its almost impossible for him to understand. english is his 3rd language...its rough. i think these statements will be helpful for him. I do admit that I feel like I use my disorder as an excuse...but as is common with mine, rage is unpredictable and happens at any time. I know he hates when we are having a great time and then I suddenly lock up and get grouchy. I hate it to, and im at such a loss. I really hate this disorder!

Lori L
says:
December, 4 2011 at 4:20 pm

Natasha, You make some very good comments about what to say to a person with a mental illness. Having a positive attitude is always reassuring. I deal with an adult who suffers with PD and just like Halley says their mood can flip like a light switch. I seem to be able to recognize some signs of mood swings and by talking to him in a positive fashion I can reassure him that he has nothing to worry about. It is not always easy though.

indu chhibber
says:
June, 5 2012 at 3:21 am

Natasha what you say should certainly be conveyed to a sufferer to make him feel loved.But don't you think that since mental illness demoralizes a person & imbues him with lassitude; it is up to the next person to give him a pep-talk & motivate him to look at other things besides his illness?After all psychotherapists & counselors cannot just say the above mentioned things & leave it at that?They have to take it a step further.Do you agree?

Anonymous
says:
October, 17 2012 at 1:42 pm

Thank you for this article.
My husband has recently been diagnosed with Bipolar 2 and is struggling with treatments. I never know what to do or say, and I wish I could help.

Sarah
says:
October, 17 2012 at 10:33 pm

Well, Anonymous, you are helping just by trying to understand your husband. More than you realise.

Amanda
says:
November, 19 2012 at 1:04 pm

I totally agree with every single word, but I still think that if you really wanna make someone comfortable (and you're really, REALLY close to this person), silence and a complacent hug is the best thing to do. No words. Just a lasting and warmful hug, more like a parent hug. Whenever I feel very depressed or thinking about attempting anything, I ask for a hug from someone I really like and cares about me.

KT
says:
February, 11 2013 at 4:37 am

Thank you...From someone who has a lot of love, but never the right words!

Sarah
says:
May, 23 2013 at 7:00 pm

This is so bizarre for me to read.
Mostly because I say all of those things to one person in particular and he doesn't understand why I'm not afraid or why I love him so much.

I have said all of those things and meant them, never being told that those are the things to say.

I think it's because those are all things I always wanted to hear from people when I was growing up. I'm bipolar 1 and I never got any nurturing or empathy from anyone. It was always isolation.

I've always known how to comfort people, but never how to let them comfort me.

It's really surreal for me.

Bruce
says:
July, 31 2013 at 9:02 am

These lists of what not to say and what to say are wonderful tools to help us do the right thing. My wife, whose 48 year old brother appears to be a severe case, sent this to me, with the goal of helping me understand her brother's illness. Their mother and his sister (my wife) and I have tried everything we know to help him, but he is consistently antagonistic, belligerent, and self absorbed to such a degree that nothing, even things like your list of "what to say" doesn't seem to help. He is only interested in getting money from his now bankrupt mother and my wife and I (we are also now in deep financial trouble because of this) and he yells, screams and curses us until he gets his way. He will not seek mental health help nor help himself by seeking gainful employment or disability assistance. Since we are now broke, having spent all my wife's retirement and most of mine, we can no longer meet his demands for financial help and he and his dog are living out of a storage shed that we pay for. I'm concerned that all of us will be on the street if we don't stop giving him almost all our money. I desperately want to help him and help ourselves do the right thing, but since he absolutely denies he has a mental health problem and blames "everything" on his family - which in my opinion is not true - his mother and sister have done everything they know to try and help him short of making him seek mental health assistance against his will, it is taking a severe toll on our lives. Can you please share any advice? We are sincere in our desire to help him. We just do not know what to do. The usual advice is to try "tuff love", and perhaps that is true, but it doesn't solve the problem of him now being homeless (save for the storage shed) and not believing us when we say we have no more money, and us going deeper into debt to help him. Thank you for any advice you can provide.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Sheila
says:
October, 31 2018 at 9:26 pm

I read your comments, and it was like I was reading my son's own symptoms, always wanting money, we can never give him enough. angry all the time, cursing at us and anyone that does something he doesn't like, other outrageous things, I can't go into. He was diagnosed with bipolar and ADHD. He has been hospitalized three times, voluntary and involuntarily. Each time he gets bad, police and crisis get involved before anyone will except him for treatment. As a parent I see hospitals as a last resort, but if you are sick, and other non family and friends are affected by it, you soon will realize that something is wrong enough to admit yourself.

george
says:
August, 1 2013 at 5:42 am

Hi Bruce, i would just let him know in a nice way that some times the money tree runs out,and try to seperate the diease from the person,we have to learn to live one day at a time when dealing wih a illness, and for me i need to ask God to help me to deal with my friend,on my own i can go down pretty low (depression) you will be ok, God is Good.

Ruby Dooby
says:
December, 16 2013 at 10:17 am

"This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t apologize for behaving badly, that everyone should do." The trick is to recognize that bad behaviour in oneself as well as others.

Nancy
says:
June, 20 2014 at 4:36 pm

Number 8 is hard for me.
I'm not afraid of the illness but
My daughter is not doing what she needs
To manage her illness ,
And self medicates with narcodics
therefore she is unpredictable and possibly
Dangerous.
She has been in and out of jail.
( a couple charges of assault among other things)
She has threatened to kill me
Several times and once stole and crashed my car.
I can not have her at my house
Or be alone with her.
Of course in her perspective I am unreasonable
And she doesn't belive me when I tell her
1-7

Tnuckle
says:
July, 18 2014 at 9:53 am

What do you recommend when someone is scared of their loved one's mental illness? That part of it where irrational verbal violence and physical violence to inanimate objects occurs? And the part where children are told about the person's plan for ending their life? You want them to say they are not scared and stay? Really? I think not, but no one addresses this part. Family members are victims too!

K
says:
November, 18 2014 at 5:31 am

Indu, In my experience, "Pep talks" can come across as not understanding the deep pain and immobilization that a person with major depression, bipolar disorder, Post Traumatic STress disorder, anorexia, bulimia, any other mental health disorder...is feeling and living with daily.
Listening and affirming the person's experience is vital and this can sometimes give the person with the mental illness the strength to continue on and to keep striving to live as well as is possible.
Serious mental illness is disabling, and "invisible" to people who do not have it.
I also recommend educating oneself through internet articles, the NAMI website discussions for family and friends, and other sources of current informaiton on mental illness.
It is not easy to know what to say...it is vital to stand behind the person who is ill..not to abandon them, not to condemn or label them, not to take out your frustrations on them. If you are feeling like hurting the person who is ill, get help for yourself!

June
says:
December, 12 2014 at 7:05 pm

Omg I am in tears reading all this what a illness my story with my son same as Bruce story but mine more tough cause his dad do not believe in such thing. Called mental illness God have mercyyyyy I do not know what to do it got me sick now I am so sick I take pills to sleep pills for anxiety cause am always scared from what's next or how is this day going to be pls help

Lexi
says:
March, 19 2015 at 8:50 am

I am so happy to have found this site .. Thank you God .. We have a huge problem, to where my 34 year old stepdaughter is refusing to accept the fact that she is mentally ill .. When we try to open the conversation, she shuts us down, saying that "There is nothing wrong with me" Or "I do not want to talk about me right now" She can carry a conversation intelligently, but looses focus, forgets, stays up all night, talks to herself, laughs with no reason, and just does strange things. Our hearts ache, because we do not know how to approach her, and how to persuade her that she needs help ...Thank you, I will read everything here for knowledge and support ..Please respond with any suggestions that worked for you.
Wishing healing blessings to all who need it ..

Matthew
says:
August, 24 2015 at 2:00 am

After reading so many life experiences here, I'd like to express as a bipolar II male that my biggest challenge is how "not serious" this disease is to people in my life.

I'm a "high functional" as it is referred to but there is only so much hiding you can do before the disease takes over. Uggghhh, cliché ahead..."The body always wins." Although a cliché it's true. This disease is truly insidious as we're attacked and most times subtly and suddenly. If your partner in life is tired, this can present a huge hopelessness issue.

I've accepted that I can no longer function in the capacity to re-enter the workforce and I'm headed for disability yet my partner sees this as my "throwing my hands up." Self harm has taken a huge toll on my body. After many years of treatment, I'm now termed as "clinically managed." After my third suicide attempt, my doctor was done as he felt he was failing me as a medical professional.

So in closing those close to me need to realize that: I'm am extremely ill, suicide is an everyday thought and this time a no failure option, when everyone drifts away it's pretty much over and last, that no failure option has not been carried out simply because it would derail my partner's new career which is his "dream job." I can't mess that up and so I exist while he grows increasing frustrated at my lack of motivation.

Michael
says:
October, 11 2015 at 7:12 am

This topic is very relative to what my girlfriend her ill adult daughter and i have been going through frot the last three years now; and it has been extreemly hard. My girlfriends daughter has been diagnosed as bi-polar and affective sschizophrenia. She had come to live with us three years ago; as my girlfriend went and rescued her from another state. I was all for her coming into our house as an opportunity to get things together. At that time I was not aware of the severity of her mental illness and thought that substance abuse was the main issue. Well after many problems ie; using, lying, manipulations, sexual involvement with terrible people etc. etc. etc. this caused major strife in the relationship between all three of us. She no longer lives with us; yet I believe that her mother and her are codependent and we still live all of the chaos first hand as if it were are own issue. Unfortunately, I have not been very sympathetic and harbor resentments. I have no longer have any desire to have any sort of a relationship with this person and it obviously makes for a really difficult time for all involved. I have a real difficult time accepting that all of the problems are mental illness and not personality or character issues. It just seems like all of it gets excused away as either substance abuse or mental illness and the person is never expected to assume any responsibility for her actions; and everyone else is just susposed to accept it and go along with the stadus quo. Supposeadly, the daughter is doing well and making strides. I have a real hard time believing because we have been lied to and burned so many times. I also feel that it will only be a short matter of time and we will be back in the same situation. My relationship with my girlfriend is definitly on the brink; we have agreed to end things without hating eachother yet, stay in the same household for a few months for monetary reasons. Please offer any advise.

Marianne
says:
January, 16 2016 at 1:29 pm

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.

susan
says:
February, 4 2016 at 7:38 am

I suffer everyday.

Pablo Remo
says:
April, 4 2016 at 3:08 pm

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.

What Have You Done For Me Lately?
says:
April, 25 2016 at 11:50 pm

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)

Pamgroovey
says:
May, 26 2016 at 9:49 am

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.

Rhonda
says:
December, 13 2016 at 4:22 am

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

Toby
says:
May, 12 2018 at 6:32 am

Any thoughts on a family member with anti-social behaviors who takes kindness as an opportunity to ask for money. My brother came to us nearly two years ago and continues to put himself in positions where we have to bail him out (such as running out of gas in a private parking lot). I do believe in doing what I can (I go to the food bank for him, gave me a place to stay for a year, let him store his things), but I am struggling financially and cannot continue to give him money. When I tell him that he ignores it, says this is the last time, says our parents would be upset with me, etc. I am not giving up on him, but just curious if there are strategies for saying no to money requests.

May, 12 2018 at 8:56 am

Hi Toby,

It can really hard to maintain boundaries in that situation but, ultimately, boundaries protect you and your brother. You can't help him at all if helping him wounds you. You know what they say, put your own oxygen mask first before you assist others because if you can't breathe, you're of no help to anyone.

You could try saying something like this: "I appreciate that you need help right now, but I need to take care of myself. I can't help you our with money, but I can ______"

Or: "I know that you need help right now, but because I have helped you so much already, I'm putting my own self in harm's way. Please understand that I will help you, but not with money."

The point being that you recognize his need, but you also recognize your own needs and boundaries and respect them. It's okay to do that. You may have to stand strong, but it's worth it.

- Natasha Tracy

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