10 things not to say to someone with a mental illness

When someone close to you has a mental illness, it’s hard to know what to say. Here are ten things that are best left unsaid.

If you need to talk to someone about mental illness or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14. For advice and support contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

When someone close to you has a mental illness, it’s hard to know what to say – and no matter how good your intentions, some suggestions or comments can do more harm than good. Here are ten things we think are best left unsaid, and the reasons why.

1. “It’s all in your head.”

OK, so mental illnesses are technically “in your head”, meaning they’re caused by a set of complex factors such as brain chemistry. But they are by no means imaginary which is why this comment is so hurtful.

Not only does this attitude trivialise the emotional symptoms of a mental illness, it ignores the many physical symptoms that mental illnesses can cause, such as tiredness, a churning gut, muscle pains, disturbed sleep, and weight loss or gain.

2. “Come on, things could be worse!”

“So-and-so lost their job, was diagnosed with cancer, and accidentally ran over their cat. So don’t be sad because things could be worse.”

For people who have never experienced a mental illness, it can be hard to understand that depression and other mental illnesses often have no trigger at all.

When you compare other people’s problems, you run the risk of belittling their experiences. And the idea that, “there are people who have it so much harder”, can worsen feelings of guilt.

3. “Snap out of it!”

This is one of the most commonly used and most dismissive comments of all. Telling someone to “cheer up” or “let it go” sends a damaging message: that mental illness is something to be ignored, endured, or both.

When it comes to mental illness, you can’t just flick a switch and ‘snap out of it’.

4. “But you have a great life, you always seem so happy!”

Although someone may seem to have it all, depression can affect anyone, even the rich and famous – just look at Nicki Minaj, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and so many others who have opened up about their mental illness.

The reality is that many people hide their mental illness under a mask of happiness. Some may not feel comfortable to reveal how they truly feel; others might do it as a coping mechanism.

For whatever reason, don’t tell someone they seem “fine” just because they’re laughing along at your jokes.

5. “Have you tried chamomile tea?”

This is the kind of well-meaning comment that many of us have made at some point when you’re trying to think of a way to help. But the fact is, herbal tea (or other magic wand solutions) just don’t cut it when you’re experiencing a mental illness.

A nice idea and we understand people have good intentions, but no amount of tea is really going to help.

6. “Everyone is a little down/moody/OCD sometimes – it’s normal.”

Often people will say “Everyone gets depressed, I was depressed for a few days last year.”

It’s true that everyone can feel a little down sometimes, or have mood swings, or get fixated on something, but, this is often not the same as having a mental illness.

If someone is constantly told that the way they’re feeling is “normal”, they’re much less likely to seek the treatment they need.

7. “This too shall pass.”

While everyone is different, you shouldn’t really tell someone that their mental illness will pass on its own; or that they “just need time”.

While it does take time, it often also takes professional medical treatment, and the love and care of a non-judgmental support network.

8. “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

While of course everyone has their own beliefs, comments like this are not very helpful.

Remember, the person may not share your spiritual beliefs – and even if they do, they may already be wrestling with different emotions such as feeling ashamed or worried that God is somehow punishing or testing them for something they have done.

Also, for someone who is struggling with their faith or spirituality, this might actually push them further away.

And no, mental illness is not the work of ‘the devil’ or ‘being possessed’– yes, we have heard that one before too.

9. “Just try to be positive!”

Suggesting that someone can treat their mental illness with a simple attitude adjustment is unrealistic – it’s a little like telling someone with diabetes to think happy thoughts instead of giving them insulin.

Mental illnesses can be serious conditions, and often require treatment to match. If only it was as simple as turning that frown upside down!

10. “Suicide is so selfish.”

Suicide is a desperate act by someone who is in intense pain and wants their pain to stop. This is not a selfish response, it is a human response – a decision no one makes unless they feel there is truly no other option.

For someone who has a mental illness and especially those having thoughts about suicide, it is so important that they are supported to get help.

What should I say?

We admit, it’s not always easy to know what to say in all situations, and that’s ok. Every person has their own preferences, however, here are a few things you may say to someone who has a mental illness – feel free to put your own personal spin on these as well.

“Thank you for telling me.”

“Talk to me. I’m listening.”

“Would you like to talk about what you’re going through? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?”

“Have you spoken to your doctor or therapist about how you are feeling?”

“I am proud of you for getting the support you need.”

“What can I do to help?”

“This must be hard for you, but you’re going to get through it.”

“I am there for you, you’re not alone in this.”

“You are important to me.”

“I love you.”

A lot of the time, simply listening can be helpful. It’s also important to talk to the person in the same way you have always done – they’re the same person, and letting them know your relationship is stable can be very important.

Helping someone get support

Mental illness can be treated. It is so important make sure your loved one has access to professional help if they need it.

Let the person know that they’re not alone, and there are a huge range of medical professionals, support groups and other resources out there.

If you (or someone you know) are concerned about any symptoms of mental illness, talk to a GP or medical professional.

If you need to talk to someone about mental illness or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.