Not everyone understands what it is like living with a mental illness. I get that. Most people, at their core, mean well and are trying to help in one way or another. Whether they are attempting to be supportive or trying to snap someone back into their perceived “reality”, they just don’t know what to say. I understand that completely, too. But using tired old cliches about life that don’t apply to living with a serious illness does not help at all. Nor does it help to offer outdated advice that has been proven to be both ignorant and ineffective. They do much more harm than good. It not only minimizes our condition and our struggles, but it also tells us that you neither understand what we are going through nor do you take our illness, or us, seriously.
Please do not tell us that “everyone has problems sometimes“, “into everyone’s life a little rain must fall“, or that “nobody said life was fair“. Likewise, please don’t tell us “it is what it is” or “everyone gets depressed sometimes“, as if our diagnosis is an everyday, trivial, meaningless bit of happenstance that is unimportant and should be paid no mind. A mental illness is not an average, run of the mill problem, a typical bump in the road of life that everyone faces at some point and is easily cast aside or overcome. It is a medical diagnosis, a medical condition that drastically affects every aspect of our lives. You wouldn’t tell someone with cancer that everyone has problems sometimes, laughing it off like it was nothing. You would show an appropriate level of concern over their health and well-being. You would encourage them to see a doctor and take care of themselves. You would be supportive. You wouldn’t dream of minimizing their condition because, left untreated, it could have deadly consequences. So could my mental illness and it deserves to be treated in the same regard.
Asking us if we’ve “just tried being happy“, telling us we “need to just learn to focus on the positives” or otherwise suggesting we’re not trying hard enough misplaces the blame on us for our diagnosis. The patient is never to blame when their body goes haywire and runs amuck. We understand that sometimes our bodies malfunction, become unbalanced, and horrible things like tumors occur. You can’t will away cancer with a positive outlook and trying harder won’t make tumors disappear. The same goes for mental illnesses. We don’t tell someone with cancer that it is “all in their head“, “mind over matter“, and expect them to become healthy again by sheer willpower alone. We encourage them to see a doctor immediately, get everything taken care of and treated so their body can work properly and be healthy again. Untreated cancer can eat a person alive from the inside out, deteriorating their health and destroying the quality of their life in every way. So can mental illness. The only difference is cancer mainly attacks and destroys the physical body while mental illnesses primarily attack the mind.
Please don’t judge us on our appearance, telling us that we “don’t look sick” or that we “just need to smile more” as if our diagnosis is even remotely dependent on our outward appearance. Also, please don’t tell us that we “don’t look all that sad to you” or that we “looked just fine the other day” because we have briefly managed to put on a brave face or wear a mask to hide our pain. Having a good day here and there does not negate all the bad ones. Invisible illnesses are still illnesses. Like many other serious health conditions inside the body, you cannot often or easily see mental illness with the naked eye. Not seeing a tumor growing inside someone does not make it any less real or dangerous. Not seeing a diabetic’s pancreas malfunctioning does not mean it is not happening or that they do not need treatment. Someone with cancer or another serious medical condition occasionally smiling, laughing or briefly enjoying life does not mean that they are instantly cured and tumor-free. Just because you cannot see our mental illness does not mean we are not suffering.
Asking us “why can’t you just be normal?” or suggesting that we “need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves” not only blames us for our diagnosis but treats us as if we’re somehow broken or flawed and it is all in our head. Nobody asks to have a mental illness nor does anyone want to be sick. We are not doing this to ourselves. We are not having pity parties. Please don’t suggest we’re just looking for attention or tell us that “the only one we’re hurting is ourselves” either, as if we’re intentionally sabotaging our own happiness by entertaining the absurd idea of some make-believe malady. Mental illness is a very real medical diagnosis, one that is often completely beyond our control. Our behavior did not cause it any more than a person’s attitude or imagination can cause tumors.
Please do not suggest we should just “snap out of it and get over things already“, either. A person cannot snap out of a mental illness diagnosis any more than they can snap out of diabetes. There is no set time frame that someone should be better, or even show marked improvement. Like diabetes, a mental health diagnosis often lasts a lifetime. And the healing process with most illnesses is not linear. A diabetic can alternate between periods of stability, and episodes of sugar spikes and crashes, dangerous highs and lows that drastically and dangerously impact their health. Similarly, even when in ongoing mental health treatment, a series of good days can be interrupted by periods of downward spiraling or numbness, and worsening symptoms as we attempt to balance medications and work through both past and new traumas. Along the same lines as the fact that we refuse to take the blame for our illness, we are also under no obligation to heal on anyone else’s schedule or whim. It is our illness, our treatment, and we will take as long as we need to take to heal fully and properly, even if it takes a lifetime.
Do not remind us that “every cloud has a silver lining” or tell us to “look on the bright side“, suggesting that we need to look for something positive at the core of our struggle. Likewise, please never tell us that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” or tell us that “it is God’s will“, as if our suffering was some divine gift or that it will be worth it in the long run. Again, it is an illness, a medical diagnosis. You would not confront a diabetic who must have their feet amputated due to their condition and suggest that they would somehow come out stronger for their loss. You would not imply to a patient who cannot keep down any food because they are undergoing chemotherapy that the silver lining is that they always did want to lose a few pounds. You would not tell anyone that their illness was a blessing in disguise, that they should be grateful for their suffering and pain. Comments like those would be not only wildly inappropriate but also extremely insensitive, as well. You would offer the person suffering your compassion, sympathy and support. People with mental illnesses deserve the same. There is nothing positive about our diagnosis or our struggle so please don’t insist we look for a silver lining or a bright side that is not there.
Please don’t tell us that “other people have it worse“, as if our struggle is insignificant because someone else has struggled more. Don’t ask us “what do you even have to be depressed about?“, expecting us to justify our diagnosis or quantify our suffering so you can determine its validity. A mental illness is a bonafide medical diagnosis that deserves acknowledgement and actual medical treatment regardless of its severity in comparison to someone else’s. It is always a serious health condition that can continue to worsen if left untreated. You wouldn’t shrug off anyone’s cancer diagnosis as trivial or be so unsympathetic as to suggest their tumors were insignificant because someone else had larger ones. Cancer is always taken seriously. Mental illness should be, as well.
If we trust you enough to open up about our diagnosis, please don’t shut us down by telling us “there are just some things you just shouldn’t talk about” or reminding us that “some things should be kept private“. That is ignorance and stigma talking. Yes, we understand that mental illness is uncomfortable to discuss. So is any other serious medical diagnosis. The difference is that families and friends will discuss other illnesses and the impact they will have on everyone’s lives. We sincerely apologize for any discomfort our diagnosis might give you, but please know that we are not confiding in you hoping you can solve it or make anything better. We are sharing our diagnosis because we consider you an integral part of our lives and we want you to be aware of everything that is going on. Don’t tell us that we shouldn’t talk about mental illness as if it is something we should be ashamed of having. The biggest reason this diagnosis has become so rampant in society today is because no one talked about it for far too long. No one talked and nobody sought treatment. But silence won’t make the problem go away. Health issues don’t vanish because you refuse to acknowledge them. It will only make it worse.
Please stop shaming us for our diagnosis altogether or our efforts to seek treatment. Don’t tell us that “all we really need is some fresh air and some running shoes” in order to feel better. Don’t tell us that “only weak people rely on medication” or suggest we try vitamin regimens, scented oils or other homeopathic remedies instead of what we have been prescribed. We have seen actual doctors. Medical professionals have given us a verifiable medical diagnosis and prescribed us the appropriate medications to treat that diagnosis. You wouldn’t shame a diabetic for using insulin to balance their body so please stop shaming us for taking our prescriptions to balance our minds. You wouldn’t tell a cancer patient that they didn’t need chemo, to just go for a brisk run or take a nice, long bath instead. That is because it is widely accepted that chemotherapy is used to treat cancer and insulin to treat diabetes. If you are willing to accept other medical diagnoses and treatments as valid, please accept ours, as well.
Please don’t attack us, demanding to know “what have you even done with yourself lately?” or otherwise question why we are not able to function as well as a healthy person. Don’t interrogate us about what we have and have not accomplished recently, either, as if our level of productivity must meet your standards or our activity must be on par with yours. Having a mental illness takes a lot out of a person, both mentally and physically. It is perfectly acceptable for someone who has just undergone chemotherapy to spend a day in bed if they so need it. If a diabetic has a sugar crash and feels under the weather, others will suggest they go lay down and feel better. Healing and recovery time is acceptable for all other illnesses. It should be for mental illnesses, too.
For so many years, mental illness was treated as something shameful, something you just didn’t discuss, something whispered about in dark corners. With the continuing rise of suicides, addictions and other mental health crisis in our society, mental illness is being spoken about today on a scale previously unimaginable. I understand that it might take some time for everyone to fully understand how to openly discuss our diagnosis with both compassion and respect after being shrouded in secrecy and stigma for so long. When unsure how to proceed, many people turn to old cliches and outdated advice that they believe have stood the test of time. However, many of those statements and sayings are not at all appropriate or applicable to mental illnesses. If you are unsure what to say to someone with a mental illness, a good place to start would be to ask yourself if you would say those words to someone else with any other serious illness. If you cannot imagine saying it to someone with cancer or diabetes, for example, it’s a good bet that it is not an appropriate response to our diagnosis, either.
After all, people with mental illnesses are not asking for special treatment. We are just asking to be treated with the same courtesy you would treat anyone else who is ill.