Since mental illness affects roughly 20 per cent of the population at some point, it is almost a guarantee that you will know someone who is experiencing a psychiatric condition.
If it is a family member, close friend or colleague, you may even be aware of their mental health issues and it could affect you in some direct way.
I hear daily about well-meaning but hurtful conversations between my patients and the people in their lives who do not understand what it’s like to live with mental illness and seem to have a knack for saying just the wrong things.
Here are a few of the most common mistakes people make when talking with someone experiencing mental illness. Maybe this can help you avoid these pitfalls and be a sensitive, sympathetic ear for a loved one.
In general, the kinds of remarks that are generally not helpful are those that imply mental illness is some sort of character weakness or something you should be able to overcome easily.
Statements such as “you just have to want to feel better,” “just snap out of it—everyone feels this way sometimes,” “stop focusing on the bad,” or “you have everything you need to get better” imply that mental illness is something that can be conquered with simple mind over matter techniques.
Those kinds of comments also make a person feel as though their illness is somehow their own fault or something they don’t want to get over.
In reality, it is not possible for a person to simply snap out of depression, anxiety or other psychiatric symptoms.
Although everyone experiences feelings of sadness or nervousness in life, these are very different from true depression or anxiety.
Quite often, patients tell me of family or friends who tell them to pray about their symptoms and seek relief from a higher power or God.
While it may be helpful to feel support from a faith community or belief system, this does not replace medical treatment when it is necessary.
Telling a person to simply pray could cause them to delay life-saving, proven treatment for a serious illness, and also often leaves the individual feeling as though it is their own fault when they don’t spontaneously get better.
Questioning why a person is unable to work during a mental illness is also a conversation faux-pas.
It implies the individual is simply lazy and using their illness as an excuse.
In reality, many psychiatric conditions are very exhausting and can make it impossible to put forth the energy or focus required to maintain employment. Sometimes only a period of time away is needed while appropriate treatment is sought.
Finally, it is not helpful to bring out very sad stories of other people you know who have had the same illness.
While you may be trying to show some understanding or previous experience with the topic, telling about a loved one who killed themselves is not particularly encouraging to your friend in a current episode of depression.
Sometimes the best way to engage with a loved one talking about their mental illness is to listen to their experience, take cues from them as to how many details they are comfortable sharing and be encouraging as they seek appropriate medical help.
All of this comes back to the ongoing existence of stigma surrounding mental illness. We need to recognize that a psychiatric condition is an illness just as diabetes or any other chronic health issue. Just like other illnesses, mental health conditions can affect anyone and require management by health professionals.