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Mental illness – what to say, and what not to say

Have you ever had a friend react badly when they were feeling depressed, and you told them to try and “look on the bright side?” Or you told someone with anxiety that they didn’t have anything to be worried about, and that it would all be okay – and they snapped at you? The dos and don’ts around what to say to someone struggling with mental health concerns or illness are sometimes a bit tricky to figure out and can have negative consequences for the individual if the wrong thing is said.

So, as someone with lived experience with multiple mental illnesses, I am hoping to give you a brief idea of what you can say and do that WILL be helpful. The first thing, and probably the most important thing that you can do is to simply listen. Ask “do you want to talk about it?” If they say yes (which they might not), actively listen without any judgement. It might seem to be a small issue to you, but to the other person it might feel huge. Secondly, ask the person what you can do to help. These two things are the best things to do and say when reaching out to someone. And something important NOT to do is to make comparisons or try to downplay their suffering (usually the good old “it can’t be THAT bad” or “other people have it worse”).

Something that is important to add, is that mental illness is called invisible for a good reason. You cannot gauge how well someone is doing by how they appear to you, someone with depression might not look down, someone with anxiety might not look worried, an eating disorder sufferer might look perfectly “well” to you or someone with OCD might not have obvious compulsions. Mental health concerns are complex, and to tell someone that they do not LOOK depressed/anxious etc. just makes the person feel like you do not believe their pain. And believe me, something we all want is to be believed.

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Editor’s note: It can be overwhelming to know where to start when talking to someone about mental illness. There are a number of organisations that provide advice and support to the family and friends of people with mental illness. Good Australian-based resources include The Black Dog Institute (www.blackdoginstitute.org.au), Beyond Blue (www.beyondblue.org.au), and SANE Australia (www.sane.org)

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