The Myth that Mental Strength Alleviates Mental Illness
The idea of mental strength often plays into mental health stigma. Out of the many ways we endeavor to encourage people through tough periods of mental illness, encouragement to use mental strength is pointless. Many of these ways are phrases or words meant with the best intentions, but they can also be potentially harmful — or at least I’ve seen the harmful effects they’ve had. Of the number of platitudes people say, one I get stuck on is “stay strong.”
Mental Strength Cannot Cure My Illness
I've actually written about the phrase "stay strong" before in regards to how it factors into the argument of willpower, but I also want to address it more in depth in regards to what "stay strong" and the way it's said implies and how that affects people. "Stay strong" is likely not the only expression that does this, but it's one that readily pops into my mind.
I've heard from others who, like me, have felt inadequate or felt like failures because of the words "stay strong," so I think it's still important to discuss. Instead of being uplifting, the words become crushing as we're falling apart and wondering why mental strength eludes us.
Imperatives Are Not Encouragements
Honestly, it comes down to the verb tense. “Stay strong,” grammatically, is the imperative verb form. It’s a verb tense used for telling people things they must do or things that are expected of them, and that can be problematic. That's probably why even a year after writing the aforementioned blog, I'm still hung up on this phrase.
To me, imperatives as encouragement leave no room for the breakdown or feeling the negatives and working through them. For "stay strong" specifically, it may even invalidate the experiences of mental illness because it’s implying that mental strength is the only acceptable course of action.
As I said in last year's blog, people use "stay strong" as a means of encouragement to keep hanging on despite the struggle. It’s sometimes even used when at a loss for words for how to help people and to show people that we care. But even knowing this, it still bothers me.
How to Avoid Platitudes About Mental Strength that Contribute to Mental Health Stigma
I feel like clichés such as these factor into stigma because stigma doesn’t give us room for the breakdowns, either. Stigma says these things aren’t allowed with its imperatives of "suck it up," "get over it," and whatever other phrases are used to invalidate someone’s experience. What I mentioned above about feeling like a failure because I didn't have enough mental strength can and did become internalized for me, transforming into a constant narrative of self-stigma, too (Signs of Self-Stigma: Do You Stigmatize Yourself?).
In this case, stigma isn’t the intended result of saying "stay strong" by any means, but I think it’s important to recognize how it could factor in.
Again, sometimes these kinds of phrases are used when we’re at a loss for words. We want to be able to say all the right things and help people, but I think the best course for being unsure of what to say is honesty. If you’re at a loss for words, say so. Let the person know that you’re not quite sure what to say, but that you’re there. Ask what would be helpful. Maybe it is saying to "stay strong," but maybe it’s not. Ultimately, when in doubt, the best thing to do is ask (How to Support Someone With Mental Illness).
Barton, L. (2018, March 12). The Myth that Mental Strength Alleviates Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, December 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2018/03/encouraging-words-can-sometimes-be-harmful
Author: Laura A. Barton
I think that sounds like mental illness is in a way your lack of strengh instead of a medical condition. If you had let say another condition perhaps a back issue, your strength wouldn't be called into question. We all can use kindnesses no matter our medical condition.
I agree, Mary. Kindness and empathy can play a big role in the recovery and healing process when it comes to mental illness.
Thank you, I'm not an american english native speaker but I need to improve my language for my job. I'm a Psychologist and I often work with people using english. I want to say thanks because this post helped me a lot!
Hi Edoardo, I'm happy I could help! Thank you for doing the work that you do to help others!
I think this is such an important conversation to be having. Often times when people say things like "stay strong", "everything happens for a reason", "time will heal" it comes from a genuinely caring place but it's sort of like a filler. It's something people can say when they're trying to find comfort in an uncomfortable situation. Being mindful of language, even language that is seemingly positive is so important, especially when it comes to mental health. Thank you for sharing this.
Hi Laura, thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is important to so that I don't make more harm than good when encouraging others. Best wishes?