I’ve been suffering from mental illness for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until recently that those years of suffering have started to make sense, I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2.
Since the overwhelming diagnosis, I’ve been trying to educate myself on the illness, on my new medication and deal with the side effects that are thrown my way most days. Over time they have become less and less and I feel like I’m turning the corner. But, medication doesn’t make it go away, Bipolar is with me for life, medication just makes it a lot easier. There are still thoughts and actions I have to deal with.
With my new diagnosis has come the process of telling those close to me. I’m not keeping my diagnosis a secret, I’m all about building awareness around mental illness and that it’s perfectly OK to talk about, just like other illnesses. But in telling people, a couple of responses have really got my goat. I read up on other stupid things people say to people with bipolar and other mental illnesses, and I was not only shocked but came to realise that many people really don’t understand mental illness.
So, I’ve compiled a list of things not to say to a woman (or man) with mental illness, based on my experience and the experiences of others.
What not to say to people with mental illness
Can’t you just snap out of it?
I tell you what, life would be so much easier if it WAS that easy to snap out of a depressive episode, for example. The thing to remember when it comes to people with mental illness is, they don’t choose to feel the way they do. I know with me, I could go to bed feeling quite normal and for no particular reason, wake up feeling absolutely horrible, low, sick to the stomach and dreading the day. If I could do something about it, believe me, I would. It’s not that we don’t want to do anything about it.
Have you taken your medication?
Ever since I was diagnosed with generalised depression and anxiety I felt that there were huge misconceptions about medication. I felt as though people expected that when you have mental illness and take medication, that it makes it disappear. It doesn’t. Medication simply makes it easier to deal with life. The moods swings and episodes usually still happen, but they’re turned down a couple of notches.
Also, medication doesn’t start working straight away. Some medications take about six weeks before they come into full effect. Other times, people may have to try a number of medications, experiencing horrible side effects, before finding the right one. This happened with me, the medication I swapped to either didn’t work or made me more depressed than I’d ever been, the opposite of what I wanted it to do. I had to go off it and start all over again. It’s a long haul.
…But you’ve done so many great things
It can be really easy to assume that someone with mental illness is OK by judging them by their nice house, nice car or perhaps they’re really successful at their job. From the outside, yes, I look like I have my shit together but really, it’s only my husband who knows of the deep dark depths of the bipolar that’s haunted us our whole relationship. No fancy house, car or clothes are going to change the way I feel, it’s the chemical imbalance in my brain that does that for me.
There are many movie stars who have mansions and millions of dollars yet, they also have a mental illness. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mel Gibson and Demi Lovato are just a few famous people that have Bipolar. The thing is, no amount of lavish possessions will make a difference to how anyone with mental illness feels.
Try focusing on the positives and what makes you happy
When you experience depression, you have no choice in how you feel. It is silly to say, “focus on the positives” to someone who is in a depressive state because of course they would if they could. Thanks to a chemical imbalance in the brain or stressful situations out of their control, people who suffer depression simply can’t be that easily persuaded.
Is it that time of the month?
Oh wow, this is a huge no no! Whether it is or not, you simply do not even say this.
“I often feel like that too”
I had someone say this to me and it frustrated the hell out of me. In explaining my illness to this person, they tried to compare themselves to me when they didn’t suffer from mental illness. Yes, it’s great to relate to people when you have a general conversation but if you don’t have a mental illness, just listen, don’t try and relate it to you or your life. It invalidates the experience of the person with mental illness.
But you always seem happy to me/you don’t seem like you have Bipolar
This is another thing that was said to me and evident of people’s unclear perception of mental illness; like it has to be seen to be cared about. When I’m feeling really low, I don’t socialise. The most I do is school drop off and pick up and put on a happy face which can take a lot of effort. When I’m feeling normal or hypomanic, people see that I’m happy and relatively normal, it’s really only my husband that notices my hypomanic symptoms.
You need to take a break.
I remember one time Mr G and I took a break and stayed overnight in the mountains. And guess what? As I sat at the dinner table in the restaurant with an absolutely magnificent view of the Gold Coast, I burst into tears and felt extremely low, for no reason at all. I should have been feeling on top of the world; no kids, food, wine, husband, view….but mental illness just happens, I had no control.
Whether it’s a trip to the beach, a relaxing picnic or ride along the river, none of these things is likely to snap someone out of an episode, there’s no happy button.
You really shouldn’t take those meds, try treating it naturally.
There are so many people around these days with conspiracy theories about the pharmaceutical companies. When it comes to mental illness, yes, a healthy diet with natural supplements is beneficial but when it’s used alongside medication. Medication can literally be a lifesaver for many, it provides the coping mechanisms to get on with life. I know that on the short time I’ve been on my new medication, I’ve certainly found it easier to manage things like work and the daily juggle of kids, school, dinner etc.
Stop being so dramatic.
It’s important to understand that mental illness is not someone trying to seek attention, it’s a genuine diagnosed illness and saying this to someone can be extremely damaging.
What happened to make you this way?
If it was easy enough to know why someone gets a mental illness, it’d be easier to treat it. But unfortunately, that’s far from the case. And people don’t do something on purpose in their life to ‘get’ mental illness, so why ask it? Most of the time, we don’t know why we have mental illness and ask ourselves the same question every single day.
Even scientists aren’t 100% sure about the exact causes of many mental illnesses. With bipolar, for example, it is thought to be primarily a biological illness. Genetic factors count for up to 80% of the cause and it’s also related to abnormal serotonin levels in the brain. When it comes to depression, many factors beyond a person’s control can lead to the illness including genetics, severe life stressors, substance side effects and medical conditions can affect how the brain regulates moods.
By no means did I put this article together to ‘have a go’ at people who don’t have a mental illness, I simply want to make dealing with and talking about mental illness easier for everyone. I want to lift the stigma and I want to educate about a serious and real illness that can often seem hidden when, in fact, there’s a whole heap of turmoil going on beneath a person’s façade. Rachel from Coffee. Cake. Kids also makes a good point regarding the language we use with mental illness. In her blog post on language and mental illness she says, “Try to ensure that when talking about mental health, you humanize the sentence construction. The person goes first because the person is not the illness.” For example, I say “I have bipolar,” not, “I am bipolar.”
If you would like to know what you should say to a woman with a mental illness, check out my post with 10 things you can ask/say here. And while I’m here a quick reminder, don’t be silent, ask them how they’re going. You don’t have to offer advice, just lend a listening ear.
What do you think of this list? Are there any cringe-worthy statements you’ve experienced that isn’t there?
Thanks for writing this, Eva and sharing your personal insights as well. It can be so hard for people trying to support someone with a mental illness to know what to say and how to be supportive if they’ve not been through it themselves.
My pleasure. It’s certainly a tough topic from both sides.
When I was working as a social worker one of my clients produced an information sheet about her illness, that included basic facts about medication, symptoms, ways that others can help and also things they don’t need to hear.
I’m not sure how I feel about an information sheet. For people I don’t know, I just let it pass but for people like close friends and family, I would hope they’d do their own research into the illness, just as I would for them for any type of illness.