Talking about mental illness and depression can be a minefield sometimes. It’s hard to know what to say, or how to conduct yourself around someone with an illness because each one is different and expresses themselves differently. Nearly 8 years ago now, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, which means I’ve had a long time to reconcile with some of the dumb things that get said to me whenever I talk about mental illness. There are so many misconceptions about what helps, and what doesn’t help, but there are some things that I know are completely unhelpful, so here are the top 5 that I’ve experienced.
- “Just cheer up!”
So this is probably the most ignorant thing anyone could say, because it is literally not that simple. Mental illnesses cannot be well-wished away, no matter how many times you tell yourself that it’s “good vibes only” day. Everybody goes through phases that are difficult and for some people, having someone say “cheer up, love” can snap them out of it, and that’s great! However, if you’ve got a clinical illness it takes a bit more than cheerfulness to make you feel better again.
- “Have you taken your meds today?”
Usually, this is said with concern, yet a lot of the time it is said in a condescending manner and often with a tilted head. Also, if a person with an illness acts out in any way, it’s easy for others to assume it’s because they’ve not taken their meds rather than because they have an actual problem that needs to be dealt with, so bigger problems can just get swept under the rug.
- “Do you self-harm?”
This is an incredibly invasive question that is almost always unwelcome unless it’s being asked by a GP or psychologist. Yet for some reason, people feel like they can ask someone who says they’re mentally ill if they do. In fact, in the past, I’ve had people ask me if I cut myself, then grab my arms and pull my sleeves up “just to check.” It’s rude and jarring to ask someone something so dreadfully personal.
- “What do you have to be depressed about?”
Yes, people do have it worse, and that is on the list of things that make me feel terrible when I am depressed. It is hard enough having to battle your own mind every day without other people getting involved and making you feel guilty for not feeling strong. Not to mention the fact that often, the above statement is actually what prohibits people from seeking professional help because they don’t feel deserving of it.
- “Have you tried yoga/exercise?”
This is usually paired with “have you tried going outside?” I’m sure exercise and getting some fresh air can be helpful, but I can hardly get out of bed sometimes, never mind get myself to a gym where I’ll have to put on a front and see people and be sociable.
So it’s all well and good knowing what not to say, but what should you say? Mostly, what’s helpful is to not say anything. Just physically being there for the person and listening to what they have to say can be remarkably invaluable, rather than saying anything yourself. The vast majority of the time the only moment advice is really welcome is when it’s given by a healthcare professional because they’re the ones skilled enough to actually know what to say, and won’t accidentally end up saying the insensitive thing that could send someone spiralling. We have two ears and one mouth, and perhaps sometimes it’s best to use them proportionately.
Written by Rochelle Asquith