Mental illnesses — like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and schizophrenia — are widespread enough in the United States that even if you’re not aware, you probably know someone with one of these conditions. A good deal of sensitivity is required to make people with mental illness feel comfortable and wanted and human. These guidelines will help your friend feel supported in their struggle. Here is some advice on what not to say and what to say if your loved one has a mental illness.
Don’t say “I know how you feel”
Everyone in the world has been sad about something, or agitated by an event. It’s completely normal to feel the range of human emotions. But when people experience depression or anxiety or mania, their feelings are mostly stronger than those of the average person. It is also very likely that the emotions of someone with mental illness happen for no reason, or with unusual intensity. So while you may indeed have felt some of the sadness experienced by a depressed person, you don’t actually know how they feel. It is better to ask someone in this circumstance how they are actually feeling, and to listen and respond without judgment.
Don’t say “It’s all in your head”
Mental illness occurs in the brain and we can’t see it. But the phrase “it’s all in your head” implies that someone experiencing a mental disorder is imagining how they feel. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Mental illnesses affect the parts of the brain that impact behavior, emotions and even physiological aspects of the body. And those symptoms are as real as the emotional and physical pain experienced by so-called “normal” people. Instead of saying “it’s all in your head,” try to understand the way your friend’s mental illness manifests. Once you know the range of symptoms related to a mental illness, you’ll be more likely to understand how it affects your loved one.
Don’t say “Just try to get over it”
Would you ever ask someone with cancer or diabetes to “get over” their condition? The same care should be taken with people who have a mental illness. You can’t just “get over” any disease, even though we perceive that to be the case with mental illness. Also, America is a just do it, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps kind of culture. We believe that hard work and elbow grease will accomplish anything, especially a non-physical malady. The fact is that mental illnesses often cause decreased concentration and motivation, the very same characteristics that are needed to change oneself or solve a problem. As a result, telling your loved one with mental illness to just “get over it” is presenting them with a nearly impossible task and may cause further depression, anxiety, and negative thoughts. Instead, you should learn about the process of recovering from mental illness — therapy, medications, perhaps hospitalization and custodial care — and respect that the treatment has many facets, just like that of any disease.
Do say “I’m here to help you”
People with mental illnesses often have trouble with activities of daily living (ADLs) like cooking, cleaning, and even personal hygiene. Offering to help someone with their ADLs will reduce some of the stress they feel due to their inability to complete household tasks. Don’t ask them what needs doing because that may cause additional stress. Offer to sort through recycling or cook them a healthy meal. Clean out their tub and run them a bath. Do anything that they’ve been too tired or too anxious or too confused to do on their own.
Do say “I can make things easier for you”
And you can. While you can’t impact the trajectory of their disease, making practical things easier for people with mental illness can make it easier for them to get and adhere to their treatment. Offer to pick up prescriptions. Return someone’s voicemails or perform e-mail triage. Your assistance might not register in the near term, but it will definitely make a difference once your friend is feeling better and ready to return to their usual routine.
Do say “I care about you”
People with the most common mental illnesses often have skewered self-images. They often feel worthless or useless and have negative opinions about themselves. Expressing care and concern will not turn those feelings around. However knowing that someone cares about them provides a piece of positive data about themselves that can be used during therapy. Everyone likes knowing that they’re loved and cared for. But for people with mental illness, experiencing that kind of emotion from another person is helpful for their overall outlook.