Talking about mental health is extremely important. People are always talking about cancer and other illnesses to spread awareness but still there is a big part of us that keeps mental health a secret.
It seems that even though mental health problems are so common, people are ashamed to admit they need help or ashamed to say they’re getting it. I personally have mental health problems and have suffered since my early teens (I am 30 now). I have had help and continue to receive help and although my problems can never be ‘cured’ I can manage my symptoms with help and at the moment I am leading a pretty normal life.
I am open and honest about my issues and if I am asked questions I try to answer honestly because it is good that people want to know about mental health problems because knowledge and understanding can help others who are suffering. Some people are not in a place where they can be open and honest about their mental health issues and that is OK too.
The way people talk about mental health is really important. Words are important. Here’s my guidance on how society should not address mental health.
‘You don’t look ill’
This is a silly statement; not all conditions show for example you can’t see if someone has diabetes and you can’t see if someone is suffering from negative thoughts or low self-esteem. Consider a more open-ended question like ‘how do you feel?’ – this shows your interest and this allows the person to decide how much they want to tell you.
‘Can’t you snap out of it?’
If ‘snapping out of it’ was possible don’t you think they would have done it already? Mental health problems are an illness like any other; you can’t ‘snap out’ of depression any more than you can flu.
‘Did they restrain you in hospital?’
This is one I have had a few times as I have been in hospital because of my mental health. This is a ridiculous question, it doesn’t matter if the person was or wasn’t. It sounds like the questioner is just looking for shocking details, not whether the therapy was helpful.
‘Are you sure you’ve taken your pills today?’
Sometimes people forget that emotions are completely normal; if someone has an argument or is really busy at work then they may get angry or stressed. It’s a normal emotional response. So if someone appears stressed or angry ask how they feel instead, don’t assume that medication has been missed constantly as this damages trust.
‘Why do you let things bother you so much?’
People react to things in different ways, if one person can deal with a disagreement and another reacts in a more extreme way, that’s just how it is. Emotional pain is felt at different levels for different people. If someone does tend to overreact talk to them and ask why it is bothering them and listen! Ask so you can learn, not just so you can complain. Maybe after a chat a solution to the problem can be found.
‘Think about other people, like the ones who have cancer, they have it worse than you.’
This is a big one and I hate it. Everyone has battles – and mental health problems can be covered up or hidden – you don’t know what someone else is going through in their head. Some mental illnesses are constant and completely debilitating but you can’t always see it and by saying something like that you are making the sufferer feel guilty for something they have no control over. If they are already fragile this can be serious! There’s just no need to compare people’s pain and troubles. Someone else’s trauma does not discount yours!
‘You need to smile more.’
Saying this to someone who is suffering is pointless. It implies that all their problems will magically go away and that, unfortunately, just isn’t true. Instead, ask the person what they would like to do to make them feel a little better. If they don’t know suggest something like going for a walk or going for a coffee, something small like that may help take their mind off things if only for half an hour it will make difference.
‘Can I trust you with scissors / this knife?’
My personal favourite…
I use self-injury to cope; it co-presents with my condition. Sometimes I go a long time without doing it but it is still there. Now I know when I am having a bad time people are careful around me and that’s fine but assuming a person will hurt themselves just because scissors are within reach is wrong.
It shows that you distrust the person and you think they will harm themselves in front of you. This isn’t going to happen.
Instead of bringing negativity to the conversation, ask them how they are or how they are feeling right now and let them know that if they want to talk you are there. Believe me, just knowing someone is there makes a big difference!
I’m sure you’ve heard lots of other inappropriate questions and exclamations. I hope my suggestions are helpful – I don’t want to put you off talking to someone in distress or offering support. If you care about someone in someway, then just being a good friend is a fantastic step.
I suggest to always focus on the present, don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future keep it all about right now. If you see someone who might be struggling just ask how they are and let them say what they want to then take it from there.
If it’s someone who you know is getting help then maybe ask them how it’s going, this allows them to open up the conversation as much as they feel comfortable with. Maybe offer them the chance to do something like go for a coffee or ask about a particular hobby you know they like. If you are genuinely worried about them then say you are worried and you want to help if you can.
Art credit: Alvaro Tapia