We’re in the earliest stages of a new world for people living with a mental illness. Slowly, the topic is becoming less taboo and people are opening up about invisible illness in a way that reduces stigma and increases understanding. As such, you’re likely to be on the receiving end of someone sharing they have a mental illness with you.
Anytime someone’s vulnerable with us, it can catch us off guard. Much of life is lived at surface level, so when the conversation veers deep it can cause one to scramble for a quick response. That response always, on some level, plays a role in reducing or increasing stigma. I’ve been on the receiving and sending sides of these conversations and have learned from both. Here’s five common responses, the implications of each, and what you can say instead.
1. What you’re saying: “Nothing’s wrong with you.”
What you’re trying to say: “I want you to know that I don’t perceive you as being anything less than normal” or “We’re too close for me to have missed this.”
What they’re hearing: “You’re being dramatic. You should stop pursuing treatment, because what you’re experiencing is not only unbelievable, it’s non-existent.”
What you might consider saying instead: “I’m sorry that I missed that.”
2. What you’re saying: “I know someone who probably has that.”
What you’re trying to say: “I can relate to what you’re experiencing, because I’m familiar with it.”
What they’re hearing: “I’m not interested in understanding what you’re experiencing because I already understand it fully.”
What you might consider saying instead: “I know people who have had similar experiences, but I’m curious what it’s been like for you.”
3. What you’re saying: “I think I might have that.”
What you’re trying to say: “I can relate to you.”
What they’re hearing: “I have zero ability to relate to you.”
What you might consider saying instead: “I can relate with those feelings on some level, but not entirely. Help me understand what you’re experiencing.”
4. What you’re saying: “I don’t trust the practice of psychiatry.”
What you’re trying to say: “I care about you and I’m concerned that you may be being bamboozled.”
What they’re hearing: “Continuing to pursue treatment is foolish.”
What you might consider saying instead: “I’m uninformed and over-opinionated. Rather than air my uneducated grievances with a form of medicine that I know little to nothing about, I’ll say something kind instead.” Or something like that 😉
5. What you’re saying: nothing
What they’re hearing:
“That’s too much for me, and I’m not willing to go there with you.”
“You should never have trusted me with this.”
“You are unacceptable.”
“You were right. You should have kept it to yourself.”
“You’ve introduced something that renders our relationship awkward.”
and anything else the person listening fills in the silence with.
What you might consider saying instead: Something. Literally anything. Even the most uninformed comment can be better than radio silence, because when it comes to mental illness, the silence says everything.
When it comes to talking about mental illness, you’re going to mess up. Believe me, I know. I’ve messed it up more times than I can count. Your willingness to even read a list like this shows that you’re open to bringing about a difference, and for that I’m thankful. If you can’t remember any of this when the time comes, keep this tiny little one-size-fits-all combo in your pocket and you’ll be just fine: Thanks for sharing that with me. Tell me more.
And if you’re one of the many people struggling with mental illness, you’ll have to learn to forgive others when they don’t understand, or when they fail to show compassion, or when they say something that’s uninformed or ignorant. If we focus on what others are doing wrong, we’re wasting time that could be used to teach them how to do this right.