Words Matter: Things You Shouldn't Say To Someone With A Mental Illness
Mental Illness is an incredibly complex, at times indescribable thing. It's something that you'll never truly understand unless you've lived it. However, that doesn't mean that you can't be empathetic towards those who do live with it. My best friend has never struggled with mental illness, he's never had depression or anxiety, yet he has undoubtedly been one of the most understanding and compassionate people throughout my struggle with my mental health. It's not because he personally understands what it feels like, it's because he understands that it's a real thing - just as real, and painful, and difficult as any physical illness.
As someone living with a mental illness, I've noticed there are certain things that people have a tendency to say to you. And while most people are well-intentioned, their words can often be invalidating, trivializing, and quite the opposite of comforting.
"Don't be depressed."
By telling someone not to feel sad, or anxious, or depressed, you invalidate their feelings. You make that person feel as though their feelings are not valid, as if they shouldn't feel the way that they do. No one wants to feel as though their thoughts, emotions, and feelings are not valid. As human beings we have every right not only to feel, but to express those feelings.
"I totally know how you feel."
Unless you've suffered from a mental illness – chances are you don't know how it feels. I realize that most people may say this with hopes of making the person suffering feel less alone. And while those are good intentions, the reality is that you don't know what it feels like to live with a mental illness. You've likely felt sadness before, but depression and sadness are two very different things.
Going through a period of time where you feel sad because of something circumstantial in your life (a breakup, a job loss, a failure, etc) is not the same as suffering from depression. Everyone experiences depression differently, but from my experience, depression is like a dark cloud that follows you everywhere that you go. Everything in your life may be going smoothly, but regardless of how good things are, you aren't truly able to enjoy them. The things and people that used to bring you joy, no longer do. Things that you would once look forward to, you no longer care about. It's as if you lose the ability to feel joy, or happiness, or contentment.
Telling someone with depression (or any mental illness) to "just cheer up" is about as reckless as telling someone with Cancer, or Crohn's disease, or any physical illness to "just heal." If it were really that simple, we wouldn't be living in a world where 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental illness. Also, “cheering up” is not nearly as easy as it sounds when you have a brain that does not produce an adequate amount of serotonin.
"There are people who have it worse than you."
While this may very well be true, this statement could apply to anyone. There is always someone who has had, or currently has it worse than you do. But pain is not a competition. We're not competing for who suffers the most, or who has it the worst. Pain is pain, and while someone may indeed have it worse than you do, that does not mean that your suffering (mental or physical) is invalid. Your pain, no matter how big or how small it may be, is worthy of attention.
"You don't look like someone who's depressed."
This statement encompasses the very stigma that surrounds mental illness. We have certain notions about what someone with depression, or anxiety, or bipolar disorder would look like. Perhaps we picture someone sitting alone, crying, distraught. Maybe we picture someone withdrawn, miserable, inconsolable. But we don't picture people like me: social, outgoing, extroverted, as someone who could suffer from depression. But I do. And so do millions of others.
There is no “poster child” for mental illness. There is no one true “face” of mental illness. Mental illness affects everyone differently, and as a result, it looks different on everyone. While it may not be visible, or present itself in the way that you imagined it would, it doesn't mean that it isn't there. And often times, those who are suffering the most, look nothing like someone that is suffering.
"It won't last forever."
This is a comforting thought, however – it's not necessarily true. Yes, there are people who experience depressive or anxious episodes throughout the course of their lifetime. There are even people whose depression or anxiety eventually fades away after being treated. However, for a lot of people, depending upon the nature of their mental illness, it may never go away. Now if you're reading this and you struggle with mental illness, please DO NOT interpret that as a life sentence. There are countless individuals that live with a mental illness and still lead happy, fulfilling, successful lives. Mental illness, if treated, can be manageable, and for the most part, tolerable. However, to say that it won't last forever, or that it will eventually stop, is for the most part untrue.
People that live with a mental illness are not looking for pity, they're looking for compassion. They're not asking for special treatment, they're simply asking that their illness be treated as just that - a real and valid illness. I know this because I'm 1 of them: I'm 1 in 4. To anyone out there currently living with or struggling with mental illness, know that you're not alone. And if you're not yet ready to use your voice, I promise that I will continue to use mine to advocate for you - to advocate for us.
With love + compassion,