Two girls facing each other and talking

10 things not to say to someone with a mental illness

August 15, 2016

When someone close to you has a mental illness, it’s hard to know what to say – and no matter how good your intentions, some suggestions or comments can do more harm than good. Here are ten things that are best left unsaid, and the reasons why.

1. “It’s all in your head.”

OK, so mental illnesses are technically “in your head”, meaning that they’re caused by complex factors such as brain chemistry. But they are by no means imaginary or something anyone would choose to have – which is why this comment is so hurtful.

Not only does this attitude trivialise the emotional symptoms of a mental illness, it ignores the many physical symptoms that mental illnesses can cause, such as tiredness, a churning gut, muscle pains, disturbed sleep, and weight loss or gain.

2. “Just try to be positive!”

We’re surrounded by motivational quotes these days, which are great if you’re an aspiring yogi – but not so helpful if you have a mental illness.

Suggesting that someone can treat their mental illness with a simple attitude adjustment is unfair and unrealistic – it’s a little like telling someone with diabetes to think happy thoughts instead of giving them insulin. These are serious conditions, and often require treatment to match. If only it was as simple as turning that frown upside down!

3. “Have you tried chamomile tea?”

This is the kind of well-meaning comment that many of us have made at some point when you’re desperately clutching at straws trying to think of a way to help. The fact is, though, herbal tea (or other magic wand solutions) just don’t cut it when you’re experiencing a mental illness.

A nice idea, but rather than play Mr or Mrs Fix It, you’re better off to simply listen and ensure your friend has access to professional help if they need it.

4. “Everyone is a little down/moody/OCD sometimes – it’s normal.”

Often people will say “Everyone gets depressed, I was depressed for a few days last year.”

It’s true that everyone can feel a little down sometimes, or have mood swings, or get fixated on something, but, this is often not the same as having a mental illness.

If someone is constantly told that the way they’re feeling is “normal”, they’re much less likely to seek the treatment they need.

Instead, let the person know that they’re not alone, and there are a huge range of support groups and other resources out there.

5. “Come on, things could be worse!”

“So-and-so lost their job, was diagnosed with cancer, and accidentally ran over their cat. So don’t be sad because things could be worse.”

For people who have never experienced a mental illness, it can be hard to understand that depression and other mental illnesses often have no trigger at all.

When you compare other people’s problems, you run the risk of belittling their experiences. And the idea that, “there are people who have it so much harder”, can worsen feelings of guilt.

It’s not that people with depression feel ungrateful for their lives. Depression is an illness, not an attitude.

6. “This too shall pass.”

While everyone is different, it’s foolish to tell someone that their mental illness will pass on its own; or that they “just need time”. While it does take time, it often also takes professional medical treatment, and the love and care of a non-judgmental support network.

7. “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

While of course everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs, comments like this are just not helpful.

For one thing, the person may not share your spiritual beliefs – and even if they do, they may already feel ashamed or worried that God is somehow punishing or testing them for something they have done.

Also, for someone who is struggling with their faith or spirituality, this might actually push them further away.

And no, mental illness is not the work of ‘the devil’ or ‘being possessed’– yes, we have heard that one before too.

8. “But you have a great life, you always seem so happy!”

The reality is that many people hide their mental illness under a mask of happiness. Some may not feel comfortable to reveal how they truly feel; others might do it as a coping mechanism.

For whatever reason, don’t assume that someone is “fine” just because they’re laughing along at your jokes. You don’t know what may be going on beneath the surface, and they may be even exerting superhuman strength just to get through the day.

And although someone may seem to have it all, depression can affect anyone, even the rich and famous – just look at Nicki Minaj, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and so many others who have opened up about their mental illness.

9. “Snap out of it!”

This is one of the most commonly used and most dismissive comments of all. Telling someone to “cheer up” or “let it go” sends a similar message: a very “stiff upper lip” notion that depression is something to be ignored, endured, or both.

When it comes to mental illness, there’s no magic wand. Instead, let the person know you’re always willing to lend an ear—and really listen when they’re ready to talk.

10. “Suicide is so selfish.”

Suicide is a desperate act by someone who is in intense pain and wants their pain to stop. This is not a selfish response, it is a human response – a decision no one makes unless they feel there is truly no other option.

For someone who has a mental illness and especially those having thoughts about suicide, it is so important that they are supported to get help.

What should I say?

We admit, it’s not always easy to know what to say in all situations, and that’s ok. Every person has their own preferences, however, here are a few things you may say to someone who has a mental illness – feel free to put your own personal spin on these as well.

“Thank you for telling me.”

“Talk to me. I’m listening.”

“Would you like to talk about what you’re going through? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?”

“Have you spoken to your doctor or therapist about how you are feeling?”

“I am proud of you for getting the support you need.”

“What can I do to help?”

“This must be hard for you, but you’re going to get through it.”

“I am there for you, you’re not alone in this.”

“You are important to me.”

“I love you.”

A lot of the time, simply listening can be helpful. It’s also important to talk to the person in the same way you have always done – they’re the same person, and letting them know your relationship is stable can be very important.

If you need to talk to someone about mental illness or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.