The first Thursday in February heralds Time To Talk Day, the day when mental health charities such as Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and all of us in the mental health community encourage you, and ourselves, to make time in our days to talk about mental health.
In our previous article MQ copywriter Juliette Burton shared her Top 10 Best Things to say about mental health or mental illness if you want to support someone with their mental well-being. Now, here is the Top 10 Worst things she’s ever heard people say to her about her mental illnesses. This Time To Talk Day, get ready to listen with open minds, and if you choose to respond, try not to say something along these lines…
The Top 10 WORST things to say (plus one more because there’s so many misconceptions…)
But you can’t be ill, you don’t look ill.
Yep! I had this said to me on several occasions when I was younger. The way someone looks does not always link to their mental well-being. Yes, sometimes a mental health condition can affect somebody’s appearance. Some of my eating disorders affected my appearance, but other eating disorders were hidden. My depression can sometimes affect my interaction with the world as can my anxiety disorder. But generally, appearances can be deceptive. In general, mental illness is indeed in the mind – it’s an experience of our thoughts that affects our behaviour and can inhibit our ability to function in a society we have collectively constructed, for the better or worse of our well-being. Making assumptions based on superficial looks is rarely helpful in many situations and when it comes to mental health least of all.
Mental illness is all made up / attention seeking / all in your head! You’re making a fuss about nothing! Pull your socks up! Get over it! Cheer up! Smile! It’s not all bad! (…and other dismissive comments)
Ah, so many variations on the same theme of ignorance here. When I was first diagnosed with mental illness I was repeatedly told I was making it up. This only served to isolate me in my darkest experiences, exacerbated my symptoms and led to a deepening hold my illnesses took over me. All of these phrases are at their core dismissive of somebody’s experience. Honouring a person’s thoughts and feelings as valid is respectful boundaries. Dismissing someone’s experience as ‘made up’ breaks emotional and intellectual boundaries that can cause further damage to somebody’s mental well-being.
Who do you blame for your mental illnesses? What caused them?
Blame is not constructive. Accountability sometimes can be but blame seems closely link to shame which is a destructive force. I do not blame anyone for my illnesses. No one is at fault. Mental illness can be caused by a number of different factors which I will explore in therapy. It’s rarely a neat little one-word or one-sentence answer. Our minds are far more complicated. So unfortunately the complex causes of mental illness and far more likely to need further research, just like the researchers MQ work with are doing.
When did you get better?
This question adds to the misunderstanding that everyone with mental illness makes a full recovery. Recovery is possible. We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. Just like with physical health conditions, some of us will develop a short-term mental illness from which we will make a full recovery with proper treatment or medication. Some of us might develop longer term mental health conditions which we can recover from with proper treatment, again just like physical health. And there are those of us who may have to live with a lifelong mental health condition which we learn to manage better or worse and with different tools as our condition fluctuates. For me, I have not been cured. My mental illnesses will, I believe, be with me and continue to teach me new lessons for the rest of my life. That doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it’s just my condition. And I’m okay with that.
You’re very brave to talk so openly about mental illness.
To be brave you need to feel fear. So to say I’m brave is to assume there’s something to be scared of. An act of bravery requires courage and courage only comes if you’re scared. I’m not scared of talking openly about mental illness. I’ve lived with it long enough to know it is a part of my life. I’ve lived with the stigma long enough to know society’s attitudes need to change and only will if more people are more open about the reality of mental health – we all have mental health, it’s a part of being human. Some of us have more rare experiences that are diagnosed as mental illness. But more and more of us struggle with our mental health in some way at some point in our lives. And the best way for fewer of us to develop life-threatening illnesses is for more of us to be open about it. It needs to become normal to do so, to prevent people from feeling alone. So it’s not brave, to me, because I don’t feel afraid of being myself and owning my experiences and my conditions. Fire fighters are brave to run into burning buildings. I’m simply being open about a fact of my life and many other hundreds of thousands of people’s lives.
Mental illness makes you unreliable/unpredictable/dangerous.
like any medical condition, without proper support sometimes I struggle to manage my conditions effectively and that does sometimes lead to a fluctuation of behaviour. But my mental illnesses have never made me violent or dangerous to others. The isolation I’ve felt because of the stigma I’ve experienced has been far more dangerous as loneliness can be the real killer. With proper support, effective communication and compassionate and constructive relationships around me, my mental illnesses not only do not affect my reliability or predictability, they help me think outside the box, bringing passion, empathy and a strength to projects other people might not have.
Have you tried [NAME OF THERAPY]? Worked wonders for me!
Projecting your own experience onto other people’s is a natural habit for many of us. When it comes to mental illness though it can feel dismissive to hear. Just like a lot of medical conditions, recovery and treatment is not one-size fits all.
Can’t trust what you say / Can’t trust your own thoughts because of your mental illnesses.
This kind of phrase is better known as gaslighting which is highly dangerous to anyone with or without a mental health condition. I’ve had it said to me. It can lead to a lack of trust in oneself, and that distancing can be a true setback for someone on a mental health journey. We can trust our thoughts, and with proper treatment and support, we can learn to strengthen the thoughts that are healthier for us to live with. This kind of mind game shows a far greater lack of trustworthiness in the person saying it than the person to whom its being said.
I’m a little OCD! I like things neat!
When people flippantly use medical terminology incorrectly it lessens the meaning of the initial creditable term. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder does not equate to liking things to be neat. It can be a debilitating condition that impacts the life of the person living with it profoundly, involving intrusive thoughts that can be incredibly disturbing and compulsions that can be very frightening to live with. Flippant language like this is problematic. You wouldn’t walk around saying “I’m a little diabetic! I like sweet things!” And that would be using medical terminology flippantly too. It adds to the misconception of what these phrases mean, so when someone is diagnosed with the condition not only might it affect how they understand the term but also how those around them treat them too.
I know what depression’s like, I was sad recently.
Clinical depression is not feeling sad. Anxiety disorder is not just feeling a bit nervous. These mental health conditions are pervasive, disproportionate, and overwhelming thoughts and nervous system responses that greatly impact a person’s day to day life. Feeling a bit depressed or feeling a bit anxious is within the realms of a common spectrum of emotions. They are not to be confused with a medically diagnosed condition of clinical depression or anxiety disorders.
Suicide is not a crime. Yet we still talk about it like one. Suicide was decriminalised in 1961 but many still use the term ‘commit’ to talk about someone who takes their own life. Suggested alternatives include: died by suicide, attempted suicide, took their own life, died by depression. This simple change of language use could help reduce stigma and shame which add to the causes of suicide.
So why not start a conversation this Time to Talk Day with your friends about mental health?
If you need help or advice about a mental health issue MQ has compiled a list of resources here.