Last week we discussed the worst things to ever say to someone with a mental illness. Many viewers commented on what their personal experiences have been and how someone’s words simply tore them apart, confused them, hurt them, or even empowered them in the long run. What we say to someone who is struggling with something has a great deal to do with our knowledge-base, belief system, life perspective, and ability to care for someone. What we say also has a lot to do with how we have been treated when we have needed help. We are social animals who learn by experience. What we say and do has most likely been learned from some early experience in development. Sadly, we rarely consider the impact we have on someone with the words we use. But in some cases, if a person is taught what to say to someone who is struggling, they can change their perspective and ultimately how they communicate with the sufferer.
It is important to know how to speak to someone who is struggling with a mental health condition. Everything that you say should be censored by your compassion and understanding of the person. During moments of frustration and anger, it is very easy to say something you don’t mean or to speak inappropriately to the person who is frustrating you. But is it helpful? Most of the time it is not. We must keep in mind that our emotions, thoughts, self-image, life perspective, level of confidence, self-efficacy, and moods all depend on how others perceive us, especially our loved ones and close friends. Whether we believe it or not, we are socially and emotionally connected to each other. We look to one another to determine our self-worth (unfortunately) and often tally up our worth based on how others speak to us, whether they accept us or not, or how we are treated. It’s something very innate within many of us. As a result, we must be mindful of how we speak to someone who is already in a state of vulnerability. We must also be mindful of how we speak to individuals who are in certain developmental stages such as young children, pre-teens, teenagers, and the elderly. How we speak to someone and what we say directly influences how that person views themselves and their mental health needs.
The last thing you want to do is make someone feel guilty, unimportant, or ousted for having a mental health condition that, in some cases, influences how that person behaves in the world. For example, a teenager who is struggling with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder may find it difficult to engage with positive peers, go to school and get good grades, and come home by curfew. This teen might engage in drugs to self-medicate, stay out late with peers he believes offers support, and eventually begins to fail in school due to the drug abuse and staying out past curfew. Parents experiencing this type of scenario must be mindful of the teen’s mental health condition which influences behavior and judgment. The last thing you would want to say to someone in this case is “you are so messed up” or “you are acting more and more like your no good father.” You want to point out your concerns, show compassion and understanding, highlight some expectations of yours, and work with the teen by obtaining professional help. It’s also okay to show anger as long as it is appropriate and not degrading. Of course, this is not as black and white as we would like it to be. But the point is that using the correct attitude and words can make a world of difference.
Here are a few things that I have found helpful for parents, families, caregivers, and friends to say to a suffering loved one:
- We will get through this together: It’s wonderful when we can join with someone and make them feel supported and loved. The healing process or recovery process is always more successful when the person feels loved, supported, and understood. When you make someone feel like you are on their team, they are more likely to be motivated to succeed. You wouldn’t want to say something like “you need to get some help, your behavior is terrible!” Of course, some people need straightforward talk, but other’s don’t. In many cases, straightforward talk can lead to rebellion and increased oppositional behavior.
- You are not alone: Some people think that they are saying this very thing when they say “you are not the only one.” But you must consider the differences between each statement. To say “you are not the only one” can appear insensitive and as if you are minimizing the suffering of the sufferer. To say “you are not alone in this” has a feel of compassion and understanding. It sounds as if you are willing to help the person you are speaking to. “You are not the only one” can sound condescending and as if you are telling the person to suck it up.
- You will get through this somehow: It’s always helpful to remind someone suffering that there is always a rainbow after the storm. There are some situations in which the rainbow will seem delayed or seem as if it will never appear. But telling someone “you will get through this” is a nice way to remind the person that suffering has an ending (whatever that ending may be).
- I may not fully understand what you are going through, but I understand pain: Some people do not like to hear “I understand what you are going through” or “I understand….” I have had many clients say to their parents “you don’t understand what it’s like to be me?” or “you don’t understand how cruel kids are today.” In all fairness, we can never fully understand what the next person is experiencing because we all experience things differently. So I have found a better way to relate to clients who feel this way. To say something like “I may not understand what you are specifically going through, but I have experienced my fair share of pain,” conveys that you still understand the person but are not trying to minimize their experience.
- There is still hope for you: Some people feel so hopeless and helpless with their mental health challenges that they begin to either consider suicide or simply give up on life. When this happens, the person needs an anchor and someone to offer a word of encouragement and hope. I’ve done therapy with many teens who have a history of juvenile delinquency, sexual indiscretion, drug abuse, and sometimes even severe mental illness. These kids have often been through the system since early childhood and have sat in many therapeutic offices and detention centers. These kind of kids often come to my office feeling like there is no more hope because “I’ve done this so many times before and nothing has helped me.” I’ve had kids say to me “what makes you think you can help me if no one else could?” In situations like this, it is important to remain hopeful for the person who is no longer capable of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. To say “there is still hope for you” and to show the person why you think this is true, is a great way to instill hope and encourage motivation.
- Life doesn’t have to stay this way: This statement is a great way to remind someone that life changes and so too can someone’s illness. Depression doesn’t have to be “severe depression” forever. There are treatments available and with a balanced diet, physical fitness, medication, therapy, and other useful tools, depression can be treated appropriately. For someone who is struggling with a severe or untreated mental illness, it is okay to say “life doesn’t have to stay this way because I will be here for you” or “you will find the treatment you need, it takes time.” The key is to always imply that there is hope. You don’t have to be overly positive. Be genuine, don’t give false hope! This can backfire.
- I will pray for strength and courage for you/your family: It’s okay to say that you will pray for someone. Some people do not like to hear this either because they are angry with God or do not believe in Him, or because it can sound condescending to some. But I think it all depends on how and when you say this. I personally believe it is okay for a close friend or family member (and even acquaintance) to say “I will pray that God will give you strength and courage.” It all depends on how and when you say this.
- Lets get out and do something fun: If you recognize that your loved one or friend is isolating and appears depressed, you can encourage them to get out more by changing the way you word your sentence. This is called reframing. Reframing is a great psychological tool because it takes a negative statement and puts a positive or more accurate spin on things. For example, instead of saying “you need to get out more, all you do is isolate” you can say “I read in an article that the best way to treat depression is by getting out sometimes and doing something you enjoy. Why not join me for dinner tonight?”
- I’ve been there too or I know someone who has: It’s perfectly alright to share your experience with a painful situation with someone who is suffering. This is called personal disclosure because you are sharing something personal that significantly affected you. Some people need to know that they are not alone. Some people do not want to hear the statement “you are not the only one,” but would rather just hear your personal experience. With caution, I use this tool a lot in therapy with my kids.
- Lets defeat this, don’t let it overcome you: Sometimes no matter what you say a person will continue to feel defeated by their circumstance. In some cases, the person just simply needs life to teach them how to deal with things better. But in other cases, I find that some people need to hear that they can get up and defeat what appears to be defeating them. A simple reminder to not let something overcome us can be just enough to motivate us.
You may find yourself questioning why certain statements should or should not be said. You might also not buy into the idea of changing the way you communicate with someone else. But I have learned, in my training as a therapist, the importance of words and language. How you say something, when you say it, and the attitude behind your words all have a great influence on how the other person will receive your message. Language and words are very powerful because, as stated at the beginning, we are socially and emotionally connected as humans. Active listening (being able to fully hear the person who is speaking without distractions) is also important. If you are texting or looking around on Facebook while someone is trying to talk to you about their suffering, you are not actively listening. Putting your phone away or closing down Facebook temporarily and fully listening to the sufferer, is active listening.
It’s important that we all be mindful of how we communicate with others, especially those who are suffering. Every ounce of communication leaves an impression on the receiver.
As always, I wish you well