Since being diagnosed with Bipolar in September 2017, I’ve become increasingly aware of how much mental illness, particularly Bipolar, is misunderstood. I think a lot of people don’t know what things you can say to someone with a mental illness, a lot of people simply don’t say anything (or say the wrong thing) because they simply don’t understand mental illness. I can understand this because, before my diagnosis, I didn’t know what Bipolar was either. It’s been my diagnosis that has made me learn about the disorder that I have to try and live with for the rest of my life, the one that pretty much rules my every day.
But, since being diagnosed, one of the things I’m not afraid of doing is to talk about mental illness. I’m not ashamed to tell people I have bipolar. I want to be part of the push to destigmatise it and make it easier for people to talk about it; hence why I wrote the post ’11 things not to say to a woman with mental illness’ and is now the reason I’m writing this one. But, not everyone is the same as me.
First off, I can tell you that when it comes to knowing what to say to someone with a mental illness, just being there with a listening ear is huge! Don’t worry about saying too much, just let them know you care and that you are there to listen. As a person with a diagnosed mental illness, the act of me merely getting all the clutter from my brain and out into the open is pure therapy.
But, if you’re still a little nervous about what you should say to a friend or family member with a mental illness, here are some ideas.
What to say to someone with a mental illness
“Are you OK?”
I’ve heard time and time again people say how silly R U OK? Day is because it goes way beyond asking someone this question and that the question should be asked every day. Yes, I agree but, the emphasis of R U OK? Day to me is the reminder that people need to ask this question all the time. Asking, ‘are you ok?’ is like opening a window to someone with a mental illness, it’s a signal to them that you are open to talking, if not now, you are someone they can rely on later.
“I’m here if you need to chat.”
I know that one of the things I struggle with is asking for help; I worry that I’m a burden on people when I’m not coping and need help but, I’m working on it. People with bipolar, depression or anxiety, for example, may either be in the mood to talk or they may not be in the mood to talk. Letting a person know that you’re available tells them that they won’t be a burden and that you’re there for them any time. My recommendation is that you say it on more than one occasion to emphasise that you mean it.
“Don’t worry about feeling silly.”
As someone with bipolar, I go through different phases or cycles. I can have periods of hypomania where I talk faster than normal, I have loads of energy, and I feel like I can take on or do anything (I’ve made some really silly decisions in the past). I also have my depressive phase where I find it hard to get out of bed, I am always tired and sleep a lot, I feel a sense of hopelessness and total lack of self-confidence. During this phase, I find it very hard to socialise.
There have been plenty of times when I’ve been going through these phases that I’ve felt really stupid and have had to apologise for my behaviour. All I can say is that if you let someone know that they don’t need to worry about ‘feeling silly’, it makes it a whole lot easier and makes people feel less self-conscious.
“There’s no need to rush, take your time.”
Having a mental illness and experiencing episodes can be a long, drawn out and uncomfortable process. Most of the time you don’t even know how long an anxiety or depressive episode will last for and, unfortunately, most of the time there’s little that can be done to make it go away other than trying a few anxiety remedies and then wait. That’s why saying, “There’s no need to rush, take your time” is so important. It’s a reminder that there is no pressure to recover straight away and that it’s in their own time.
“This feeling will pass.”
My husband and I have an agreement that when I’m going through a tough episode, this is what he says to me. When he says this to me during a panic attack or depressive phase, it is an immediate reminder that my bad phases do in fact pass and that I just have to ride the storm. You’d have to agree; it’s a lot better than saying, “snap out of it!”
“I love you, no matter what.”
Another positive reminder for me is this beautiful statement. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve felt like a burden on my husband and my family because of my bipolar, but this statement is the most powerful and reminds me that my bipolar is part of who I am and that I am loved, unconditionally.
“I can tell you’re feeling overwhelmed/upset/down, how can I help?”
When you have a mental illness, the way you feel can rarely be controlled and so saying something like “don’t feel overwhelmed” is pointless (and frustrating). The best thing you can do is acknowledge how a person might feel and then ask them how you can help them get through it. Let them lead the way in telling you how you can help, not the other way around. If you know the person well, you might know that when they are feeling down, they like to have a relaxing hot bath and a glass of wine. If this is the case and you have confirmed they are in fact feeling down, ask them, “Would you like me to run a hot bath?”
“I can see that you’ve been struggling lately, maybe we should schedule a visit to the doctor? Would you like me to make the appointment for you?”
I have a habit of always putting off a visit to the doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist because I don’t think I’m ‘bad enough’ or I’m spending more time worrying about my kids and other things. I think that this statement is a powerful one because it gets people like me into a doctor when they need to. I’ve found that with having a mental illness, one of the hardest things can be getting to a doctor in the first place because there’s so much denial involved.
“I can’t understand how you are feeling, but I can offer my care.”
As you will read in my post about what not to say to people with a mental illness, it is of absolutely no use (and infuriating) when someone without a mental health condition tries to compare. Avoid comparison statements like, “Oh, I’ve days where I’ve felt depressed, I know how you feel,” and use this statement instead. The most important thing is that you offer support.
“You’re not alone.”
For me, having bipolar can be quite lonely and isolating, as though I’m in my own little world with billions of thoughts going round and round in my head. Bipolar is a very secretive illness, most of the time people don’t know a person has bipolar unless they tell you. The same goes for depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. We attend to our daily lives covering up how we feel and doing so is completely exhausting.
Because people with a mental illness tend to go ‘under the radar’, from the outside, it can seem as though everything is alright but, we’re internally screaming out for help or even just a chat to ‘let it all out’. This is why one of the best things to say is, “You’re not alone”. It’s a reminder to a person with a mental illness that although the path seems lonely and exhausting, they never have to feel alone and that there is always someone available to talk to.
Compassion is key
It’s not always easy to work out what to say to someone with a mental illness, but it is easy to listen. Listening means being able to understand better what your friend or family member needs or finds the most helpful. From there you’ll be better able to support and understand them. Most importantly, compassion is key. There’s nothing more reassuring than having someone who genuinely cares.
** Everyone’s experience with mental illness is different, my post is intended as a guideline only and is based on my personal experience with bipolar, anxiety and depression.**
If you, a friend or family member are experiencing a personal crisis, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia).