We’ve been talking a lot about mental illnesses this week. We’ve heard from people with multiple different illnesses and how living with the condition actually affects them. But empathizing because you read about mental illnesses online does not always prepare you for what to do when your friend is struggling with one. If you’ve never struggled with a mental disorder, it might be hard to understand what talk is helpful and what’s doing more harm than good.
How do you talk to someone with a mental illness? We’ve got your basic crash course right here. But when in doubt, just ask them. Sometimes, you just have to ask people what they need.
What NOT to say
- “Your life hasn’t been that bad, why are you so depressed?” Unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of this person’s trauma, you can’t really assess how bad their life is. And even if you could, depression doesn’t care if your life has been good or bad. Sometimes your life is great, and you don’t know why you’re so miserable. That’s kind of the worst thing about it.
- “Are you doing this for attention?” No, they’re not. I can pretty much guarantee you that they are not. If I could turn my mental illness off, I would. I don’t want to feel this way, and I hate that I’m always talking about it. Plus, if I wanted attention, I could get it pretty easily by putting on a really big hat, not by sacrificing my whole life to an illness that doesn’t make it better. Saying things like that can make people feel like they can’t talk about their struggles because they’re worried it’ll look attention-grabby.
- “Can’t you just cut it out?” Nope. Not possible. If people could turn off their mental illnesses, they would, because living with a mental illness is the worst. Sure a person can try to practice healthier behaviors, but that’s not going to make the disorder go away.
- “It’s all in your head.” Yeah, it is all in my head. My brain is doing this. Why does that make this not real? It may be “in my head,” but these emotions I am experiencing are very, very real.
- “You never want to do anything fun anymore.” Stop making your friend feel bad. Chances are, they already feel bad enough. Shaming them probably won’t make them very excited to go out, anyway. Many mental illnesses have characteristics like loss of motivation, distraction or irritation that can make it really hard to be social.
- “I got an A in Intro to Psych, so I totally know what you’re talking about.” It’s cool that you learned and retained information, but a semester of coursework is not the same as living your whole life with a disorder. They’re the one who experience it every day, not you.
- “I totally feel the same way when I do _________.” It is good that you are trying to empathize. If comparing their experience to yours helps you understand, then that’s a good thing. Just don’t make their struggles all about you.
- “Well, it could be worse.” Yeah, that doesn’t make their situation suck any less. In fact, it makes them feel terrible for the way they feel. Saying “it could be worse” never makes a person say “oh man, that makes my life so much better!” You’re attempting to look on the bright side, but instead you’re just invalidating the way they feel.
- “And how do you feel about that?” You’re allowed to say that sentence, but don’t try to be their therapist. Don’t try to solve their problems. Most of the time, they just want a listening ear. Chime in with “that sucks” every once in a while, don’t try to psychoanalyze them.
What TO say
- “How are you doing?” Don’t worry, you’re not being nosey. Sometimes the only way to see if something is going wrong is to ask.
- “You can be honest with me.” Let your friend know that you’re not going to judge them for how they feel. Let them express themselves and feel that they are safe around you. Once they know they don’t have to be on edge, they may open up a lot more.
- “Are you getting the help they need?” Your friend might have a therapy appointment on their planner every week, or they may have always avoided getting help. It is great to offer advice or resources here, as long as you don’t try to solve all of their problems for them.
- “I know you’re nervous about therapy/medication/dealing with this situation—do you want me to go with you?” If your friend is freaking out about getting treatment for the first time, it can be super helpful to have someone there with you, even if they just wait in the lobby.
- “Do you want to talk about it?” This is a good question because sometimes, you just don’t want to talk about it. If your friend has been dredging up emotions in therapy or having to deal with triggering situations, they might just want some space from those feelings. You can sit and let them cry about it or ignore the problem and watch Friends again or go for a run around campus to burn off nervous energy.
- “I don’t completely understand what you’re going through, but I’m here for you if you need anything.” Sometimes you just don’t know what to say. That’s okay. Just letting your friend know that you’re here to support them can be enough.
- “I haven’t heard from you in a little bit, I want to check in and see that you are okay.” If you feel that something might be wrong, checking in on them is important. Sometimes your friend won’t tell you how they feel because they’re embarrassed, isolating themselves, they’re engaging in unhealthy behaviors that they want to hide, or for any number of reasons. A simple “u ok?” text could help your friend realize that they’re not alone, and that could make all the difference.
- “Do you want a hug?” It’s good to ask, as not everyone likes to be touched, but a sign of love from a friend can be really important and really special.
- It’s that easy. Just be supportive. Let them tell you what they need right now.