This article is part of VocaLady Magazine’s ongoing series on mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month which takes place in May.
The recent upswing in open discussion on mental illness has done wonders for those suffering from mental illness. From Twitter users explaining their experiences using #MyDepressionLooksLike to the acknowledgement of Mental Health Awareness Month (May) by notable news and media organizations, now has become the time to speak up about mental illness, tear down longstanding stereotypes and promote an understanding of the mental struggles of many. Nonetheless, there are still ways in which people, intentionally or not, can harm those suffering from mental illness. Using harmful language against someone suffering from mental illness, particularly if they’re a loved one who just disclosed something that is hard and painful for them, can cause a ton of setbacks for that individual. It can trigger them to self-harm or have a panic attack, invalidate them, or make them afraid to share anything else they’re feeling.
Here are some common phrases people might say when others disclose mental illness and why they’re harmful (as well as what to encourage yourself and others to say instead):
1. “No, you don’t/Are you sure?”
Why it’s harmful: Questioning someone’s mental illness or just plain denying it after they’ve taken the brave step of disclosing it to you invalidates something that they’ve spent a long time thinking about. Someone with mental illness knows their mind and what they’re experiencing better than you do. If they’re disclosing it to you, they’ve put a lot of thought, time and research into understanding their illness, so don’t cause them any self-doubt by doubting them yourself. Do not deny someone with mental illness agency over diagnosing themselves/seeking help. This can cause someone to not want to disclose their mental illness to anyone else or explore their illness further, which can be incredibly harmful to their well-being.
What to say instead: I believe you. And then, if they’re disclosing to ask for your help in any way, just listen.
2. “Stop playing the victim.”
Why it’s harmful: By telling someone they’re playing the victim, you’re making it sound like they’re being manipulative in disclosing their mental illness. While mental illness can affect more than just the mentally ill individual (and, please note, someone with mental illness can still be abusive towards others and intimate partners), someone with mental illness is not mentally ill because they seek to manipulate you or act disruptive towards your life. They are grappling with something that they cannot control — and they are disclosing this to you to receive your help.
What to say instead: What can I do to help? Offering your support is important, rather than insisting that someone with mental illness is playing the “victim card.” Show them that you understand that they’re struggling with something out of their power and offer to help.
3. “It’s only temporary. Try to get some fresh air/see your friends/some kind of activity you think will ‘help.'”
Why it’s harmful: Mental illness isn’t temporary. Unfortunately, some illnesses can last years, even lifetimes. While some coping mechanisms, like spending time outside, can help some people, for others with mental illness, some activities, even getting out of bed or making some food, can be exhausting and seem impossible. There are no easy “fixes” for mental illness and your suggestions can be patronizing.
What to say instead: What would you like to do? What would you like me to do? Maybe they’re reaching out to you for help obtaining a therapist or medication, as they believe that will help. Offer your support (do you see a pattern here?).
4. Using the word “crazy” in any capacity
What it’s harmful: Even if you’re not saying “crazy” to anyone and you’re just using it to describe something, the word itself is a slur. This word, like “insane,” has been used against those with mental illness to invalidate and harm them. Just don’t.
What to say instead: Don’t use any sort of slur or mean language against someone who has disclosed mental illness. If you truly don’t understand, there’s this amazing thing these days called Google. Educate yourself on what this individual may be experiencing. Again, if you’re using the word “crazy” to describe a thing or an event, use non-harmful alternative language. “Wow, that concert was crazy,” can easily become: “Wow, that concert was amazing.” Not so hard.
What are some phrases you wish people wouldn’t use when discussing mental illness?
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