It’s not easy living with a mental health condition or someone who is suffering from mental health challenges, especially when it is severe or chronic. It’s even harder trying to get others to understand what it feels like to struggle or what it feels like to watch a loved one struggle. Until you experience mental illness (either yourself or through someone else), you have no idea how sensitive everyone is and how important it is to be careful with what you say.
Have you ever experienced depression or know someone who has? What has been your self-talk (things you say to yourself to help yourself overcome the depressed mood) or things that you have said to others who appear depressed? Perhaps you make statements such as “cheer up!” “It will get better” or “you won’t be depressed forever.” Do you think such statements are helpful? It wasn’t until I became a therapist and started working with families and young children that I learned what should and should not be said to someone who is struggling with a mental health condition.
When I speak with clients and their families I often engage them in what’s known as psychoeducation. Psycho-education is education about something related to psychology or mental health. Families receive psychoeducation on how to communicate with their loved one who is suffering from a mental health condition. During these sessions I often find families perplexed by a mental illness. Families are even more confused about how to communicate with the sufferer and how to avoid terms that can result in more problems for the sufferer such as low self-esteem. It is important, me included, to be mindful of what we say, when, and how in any situation, but more important when communicating with suffering individuals. It’s difficult to believe that you almost have to walk on “egg-shells” with a loved one who has a mental health condition. But one wrong word about them can lead to your loved one isolating, rejecting you, or feeling more depressed. Sadly, the key to better communication is to learn the correct lingo. Part of this lesson includes knowing what not to say.
Unfortunately, many families are not educated to better ways of communicating with their loved ones. As a result, these individuals say the first thing that comes to mind or often relies on what they believe would make the person “snap out of it.” There are a few things I have heard families say to their loved one which includes:
- Get over it: It’s so easy to say these words when you are frustrated or “fed up.” Someone who ruminates or harps on the same things over and over can truly affect your own mental health. Someone who, for example, is severely depressed and continually speaks to you about a depressing situation, can make you feel depressed. Your thoughts may be “please get over it!” It’s perfectly fine to have your thoughts, but be mindful with what you say. It’s really easy to come across as uncaring, even if you don’t mean to be.
- You are not the only one: This statement can be said in the heat of the moment during an argument or period of frustration. This statement is often used by some people as an attempt to encourage another individual to get motivated to do something. For example, you may feel as if the person suffering is using their condition as an excuse to avoid doing things such as seeking employment, keeping a job long-term, or doing household chores. I’ve often heard this statement made from some parents to teens who are struggling with depression and tends to avoid doing homework or stays isolated in their bedroom.
- Don’t use this as an excuse: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a person’s condition and begin to think “they are using this as an excuse to avoid their responsibilities.” Be careful because this doesn’t have to be the case.
- You aren’t trying: When a client is told that they are not trying, they are likely to not try at all. This is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” A self-fulfilling prophecy is a type of phenomenon that occurs when someone is either told something that they begin to believe as true or when the individual himself begins to tell his own mind something that is eventually believed to be true. For example, a teacher can tell a child “you will never pass this test with your behavior” and although the child is very intelligent, they can actually begin to believe what the teacher has said and unintentionally underperform. We must be careful how we word things and how we express concerns. Some individuals with mental health conditions are truly trying, trying to the best of their ability. To say “you aren’t trying” can come across as judgmental, arrogant, and uncaring. It’s certainly okay, however, to share your concerns with the individual and ask them how much they feel they are actually trying.
- You can’t be like this forever: Sadly, I have heard many parents say to their adolescent child that “you cannot remain this depressed forever because you have to get into college.” This placed an insurmountable amount of stress on the individual and even led to worsening depression. Some individuals will recover very quickly with the right amount of medication and therapy while others may suffer for years. Making this statement will likely lead the person to feel inadequate.
- Get out more: Again, you don’t want to come across as judgmental or as uncaring. To tell someone suffering from a mental illness to “get out more” makes it sound as if you think the person is either strange or too isolated. You want to be careful how you share your concerns of the person’s isolation.
- You are lazy: Some individuals with mental health challenges can come across as “lazy,” especially those who struggle with depression or severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia. But it is important to keep in mind just how ill the person is before you make such statements. Laziness is a “character flaw” not a symptom of an illness. A person who is appearing to lack motivation is probably going through a mental or emotion struggle of some kind. You don’t want to make them feel bad for struggling with an illness. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if the person could see themselves or help themselves, they probably would.
- You are like your father/mother: We cannot help to take after certain family members. It’s inevitable. But saying “you are like your mother” or “you are just like your father” during moments of intense stress is probably not the best thing to do. You are likely saying this because you are frustrated or the other person has done something to make you angry. You must keep in mind that such a statement is also a judgment that can lead to escalated behaviours or worsening self-esteem.
- You are just being a brat: Some children and teens who are struggling with behavioral problems or mental health challenges are often unable to control their own emotions and behaviors. It is not very helpful for the child or his or her self-esteem to make statements such as “you are being a brat right now” or “just grow up, you are so annoying.” These statements can, again, be judgmental and confrontational. However, we all know that children push limits and boundaries. We also know that parents get tired and frustrated. But does this make calling the child a name (i.e., “brat”) helpful? Does it contribute to escalating everyone’s emotions? Does it cause the child or teen to see themselves negatively? Does it make the child or teen feel unloved or misunderstood? If so, I encourage you to avoid using such terminology.
- You are so sick: I have had the unfortunate experience of hearing some parents or guardians call their child “sick.” It’s a word that paints the individual as “strange,” “weird,” or “crazy.” It does not help the individual understand themselves and it does not truly convey the frustrated person’s emotions. It only serves the purpose of condemning and hurting the other person.
There are certainly better ways to communicate your feelings to someone who is struggling with an illness. I encourage you to be mindful of how you communicate with those you love and care about. Nothing is worse than having a family member, caregiver, or close friend speak to you in the worst way when you are down and unable to move forward. “Tough love” doesn’t mean verbal or emotional abuse. You want to encourage your loved one to get up and keep moving forward by using the right words.
The term “active listening” is an important thing to keep in mind. Active listening refers to the ability to truly connect with the person speaking to you. You are not listening so that you can respond and you are not listening while doing other things. You are able to hear what the person is not actually verbalizing with words and can empathize with their feelings. You are listening for true emotions. You are not being judgmental, but open and understanding. You are giving the person your undivided attention and making the person feel heard. You want to practice conveying empathy, kindness, and compassion.
As always, I wish you well
Photo by a2gemma