Is There a Wrong Thing to Say?

In this installment of my ongoing series about what people are afraid to ask about mental illness, I would like to discuss a question that not enough people seem to ask.  “Are there things I just shouldn’t say to/about someone living with a mental illness?”

I have personally experienced times in which I was the recipient of distasteful comments.  For example, after becoming sober, a friend told me that I was “more fun when I drank”.  I also have experienced being told to “get over it”, “cheer up”, or “smile” when I was in such a deep depression I just wanted to disappear.

Once, while speaking with a psychiatrist during one of my hospitalizations he told me to smile, the same man later walked through a group session and said that everyone was acting like such downers.  At another hospital stay, a nursing student told me that I “live[d] in a great area and should be happy because of that”.  This is all to say, even professionals need to be reminded sometimes of the sensitivities of the population they are working with.

The question of what to or not to say is one that has many answers and may very well change depending upon who you ask.  Below is a sampling of what I think should be avoided.

In Regards to Depression:

“Cheer up”, “Smile”, “You have a great life!”, “There is no reason for you to be down”, “We all get down in the dumps sometimes.”

Every single one of these statements belittles the experience of someone who is depressed.  If the depressed individual could cheer up, they would, if they wanted to smile, they would.  The thing with depression is that it is an illness, so saying there is no reason someone should be upset is like telling someone with a limp to just go ahead and walk straight.

About Anxiety:

“You’re so OCD”, “Calm down”, “Doing (x) isn’t that scary, just do it”, “You are so weird”

Once again, these statements belittle the person experiencing anxiety.  We have all been anxious about something before, so we can all somewhat imagine what the anxious person is experiencing, but the thing about someone diagnosed with an anxiety disorder is that the event they are nervous about may be life.  They may be able to tell themselves a million reasons why it is safe to fly, for example, but their brain chemistry will still be sending out the danger alert.

Other Disorders, such as (anorexia, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder):

“Stop being dramatic”, “You are doing this on purpose”, “If you just tried you wouldn’t be like this”, “I liked you better before”

In general, saying anything that downplays a persons experience or implies disbelief about what the person is experiencing just shouldn’t be said.  Instead, try one of the following:

“I care about you and want to help, is there anything I can do?”

“Will you please explain to me what you are feeling?”

“I want you to get help, I know that can be scary, but what you are feeling is a symptom of an illness, if you broke an arm, you would go to a doctor, and you should do so for this as well.”

“Do you want me to sit with you?”

“I’m here if you need me.”


Have you ever had an experience in which someone said something inappropriate to you regarding your illness?  What was it?  How did you respond?  Let me know in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s