Mental health is a tricky topic. It is tricky because many people lack knowledge about what it is, how it is treated, and what the person who is struggling needs. Most of this lack of knowledge is the result of a society disinterested in learning about “mysterious phenomenon.” In other words, society steers clear of topics that are difficult to understand and challenging to examine. It’s so much easier to tackle something on limited knowledge at times. This is an example of “ignorance is bliss” mentality.
This article will discuss 10 things you should, and 10 things you should not say to someone experiencing depression and anxiety.
Our words can either breathe life in to our soul or bring pain for the heart. What we say has a lot of power. It’s saddening to hear all of the negative language being spread across the world today. Much of this is because people fail to realize that words are not just words. They carry life and death. They can empower or tear down. Consider the fact that what we say to each other is very similar to the air we breathe. Without it, we suffocate. With it, we thrive.
As a therapist working with multiple populations over the years, I was able to hear the words of thousands of clients and their families. This experience highlighted what words were useful and what words were not. Below I break this down for you in hopes of increasing your awareness and vocabulary.
10 things you SHOULD say:
- “It’s going to be okay once we figure out which way to go”: This statement conveys to the person that you truly care and that “we” are going to figure this out together. When challenges of life overwhelm you, doesn’t it seem less frightening when someone is there (by your side) to hold your hand, cheer for you, or push you ahead? It becomes that much more important for those struggling with mental health conditions that lead to overwhelming symptoms.
- “Would you like me to go to your appointment(s) with you?”: Again, this statement conveys “we” and highlights togetherness.
- “How are things going for you?”: This question sends the message that you are concerned about the person and want to know what life is like for them. This question can build relationship and trust. It can also give the person the opportunity to open up and talk about their experience.
- “Would you like me to help in some way?” This question is supportive in the sense that it provides the person with an idea of how much you want to help. Just hearing these words can lead to a reduction in depressive symptoms or even anxiety.
- “What are you working on in therapy?”: This statement conveys that you believe in the process of therapy and that you care about what is happening. This allows the person to also explore their own thoughts and feelings about therapy. Sometimes therapy can be so “secretive” that the person avoids any kind of discussion about it which can lead to internalized thoughts and feelings. While privacy is important, internalized thoughts and feelings means the person is not truly exploring the therapeutic journey as they should.
- “It’s not your fault”: Over the past week I have heard at least 5 clients say “this is all my fault” when referring to symptoms or challenging situations. It’s interesting how we, as humans, blame ourselves for things we have absolutely no control over. We may blame ourselves for a divorce, for a spouse with paranoid or delusional thoughts, or for our children failing in school. But the reality is that many of my clients aren’t to blame. Self-sabotaging language is often internalized self-hatred, regret, or anger. Hearing “it’s not your fault” can reduce a lot of anxiety.
- “You’re not alone”: This conveys the same message as above which is “I care about you” and “want to support you as you travel this road.”
- “You’re in my prayers:” Although some people may take this as a condescending statement used to minimize, it can be a very consoling statement to someone who feels their life and faith is completely out of control. It also sends the message that someone is willing to petition God (a Higher Power) to help, support, or strengthen. It is a show of faith.
- “You just need a break now”: Sometimes hearing “you’re just tired” or “you need a break” can normalize the person’s experience and cause them to think about reasons for why they are exhausted. It almost gives the person the “permission” to be tired and need a break in life.
- “I wonder if you’re feeling…”: Taking an “unknowing” or naive position, especially with people who might respond defensively, can be helpful to you and the other person. When I am working with resistant clients (primarily teens or those with severe mental illness), I find that if I remove myself from the position of “expert” temporarily, the person begins to open up, feel more comfortable, and trusting. Asking “I wonder if you’re feeling” is conveying that you are not the expert on their feelings.
As you can see, these statements are made to not only encourage the individual, but to show your support of their experience and needs. You don’t want to sound as if you are pitying the person or “feeling sorry” for them in a condescending way. Your goal is to communicate empathy, care, and concern. The above statements are also humble and “passive” in a way. They are meant to directly address or challenge the individual. You never want to sound challenging, condescending, or harshly direct.
The following are things we should never say to someone who may need us.
10 things you should NOT say:
- “Get over it!” This statement is often used to harm or minimize a situation. It is not a statement of support and cannot, no matter how you say it, be taken in a positive way. This statement should be removed from all vocabulary.
- “Pick yourself up”: This statement is similar to “get over it” because it conveys that the person is “defected” and needs to “get better.”
- “Why are you acting this way?” While it is normal and okay (in some circumstances) to ask this question, it can be condescending, insensitive, and triggering. I’ve had clients who have been in the throes of psychotic breaks or periods of dissociation while hearing a loved one ask “why are you acting like this?” It would only further escalate the situation.
- “Snap out of it”: This has the same tone as the above statements “get over it” or “pick yourself up.” This statement also conveys that you do not believe the person is truly struggling with a condition but that you think they can “snap” back into reality.
- “You need to…” or “you should be….”: These statements sound controlling and can come across as demeaning as well. This can be especially offensive to someone who is very independent and self-reliant. You might benefit from rewording or re-framing this statement to sound more caring.
- “You have nothing to be sad (or anxious) about”: This statement can make a person sound extremely insensitive and detached. Although this may be true for the person, the way in which you say it will make all the difference. You can re-frame and pose the statement as a question instead. You may say something like: ” Do you think you are being too hard on yourself because you have very little to be sad about? Sometimes we may feel that we should not be depressed if we have all the things other people want.” This does two things: 1. It causes the person to think about their responses and reactions and 2.) subliminally gets the person thinking about the reasons for their emotions.
- “So many people have worse situations than you”: Sometimes this dose of reality is needed to help the person turn things around. Other times, it can be detrimental and insensitive. Personally, I don’t think this statement should ever be made. However, if you do decide to use this statement, you may want to reframe it.
- “I think this is what you do. You need attention”: I discourage many of my clients’ parents to avoid this statement. Even if the adolescent is seeking attention, bringing attention to this fact can backfire. Some kids become more oppositional and intentional in their negative behaviors.
- “You don’t need help”: This statement is very similar to the statement above. It should be avoided. This statement should also not be made if the individual has not been evaluated for a psychiatric condition. In some cases, especially in those involving depression or anxiety, parents may not see clear signs of a psychiatric condition and force their children to stop negative behaviors.
- “You are embarrassing”: This statement is completely deflating, hurtful, and cold. It says that you absolutely don’t care and want things to go your way.
These statements, often made by family members, friends, or co-workers, are sometimes made out of fear or lack of knowledge. The fear is that the person they once knew is no longer acting in the ways they are used to. Lack of knowledge leads these individuals to make statements (sometimes with the best intentions) that are harmful.
Have you heard other statements or questions that could be positive or negative?
As always, I look forward to your hearing about your experiences and answering your questions.
All the best