10 Things You Should Not Say to Someone With a Mental Illness

These are some statements that should probably be avoided when speaking to someone with a mental illness or in a situation that causes them to have feelings of hopelessness.  It is crucial for people to understand that the stigma around mental illness strongly influences our responses to family members or friends struggling.  I am not an expert, but it might help to give suggestions about better ways to handle these moments.  Basically I am trying to protect you from being called a huge doucher behind your back…you can thank me later.

10 things you should not say to someone with a mental illness…

1.  You don’t look mentally ill?   Oh no, its this new foundation I bought yesterday, I am really miserable inside!

     The image you have in your head of what a person with a mental illness physically looks like is wrong.  No we do not come out of holes looking like Morticia.  Mental illness has no shape, face, ethnicity, economic status or size.  

It would be better to say, “I would have not suspected you were having these feelings, it shows your strength, but do not feel obligated to put on a smile right now”


2.  Whats making you feel like this?  I don’t know, I ate a bad batch of oysters last night.

     In some situations people do know why they are feeling depressed or why their mental health is jeopardized.  It may be the death of a loved one, a break up or any other damaging situation.  However, more than likely the response is “I don’t know.”  When I was hospitalized, the first question I was asked by the social worker in group therapy was “whats making you feel like this?” to which I replied several times, “I don’t know.”  Guess what?  The people who came in after me day by day had the exact same response.  Sometimes there is no reason, we cannot give answers to every question in life.  There is no equation to life, and this we have to accept.  If there is something that is making  this person feel a certain way, most likely they will voice it on their own.  The question posed may make the other feel like they need to come up with an answer, which they probably do not have in that moment.

It would be better to say, “Is there something that is making you feel like this at the moment, or is it too hard to explain.  I am here for you regardless.  Sometimes we there is no rhyme or reason for the way we feel.”


3.  “It is just a phase”  This isn’t puberty I am talking about…

      This is a lazy answer.  A “phase” is when you are a teenager and tell your parents to ‘screw off’ every other day.  It is not feelings of hopelessness so severe you feel required to reach out to a friend or loved one.  

It would be better to say, “Is there anything going on in this time that you feel like are contributing to your feelings”


 4.  “Yeah I know how you feel, one time…”  If this is about the time you shit your pants again, I don’t want to hear it!

     Stop right there.  As much as we all like to relate our own experiences to others, sometimes it is not necessary.  Your situation is different from another person’s.  If you want people to know more about your ‘experiences’ write a book.

It would be better to say, “I just want to tell you before you continue, you are not alone.”  


5.  “You did this to yourself”  Wow thank you for enlightening me, you must be fucking Gandhi!

Talk about making a person struggling feel more ashamed about their illness.  People do not want to feel pain.  I tried for years to “undo it to myself” and it landed me in a hospital.

It is better to say, NOTHING.  Your an asshole if you say this.

6.  “There is always someone worse off than you”  Thank you for making me feel even more like S&*T!

     Okay, this one is my favorite.  As someone who has lived a privileged life, I have heard this comment time and time again.  It was one of the biggest difficulties in overcoming my fear believing in my diagnosis.  People are aware of this, but everything is relative.  I have volunteered at numerous homeless shelters and listened to hundreds of stories about people who have lived through horrible situations, so I know someone has it worse than me.  This comment leads to extreme feelings of guilt.

It would be better to say, “Do not feel guilty, you are not alone in your suffering”


7.  “God will help you through it…”   He put me on hold for right now, so can you help me with this problem until he is ready.

     It is one thing to believe in prayer and spiritual guidance, however, it is another thing to relay sole responsibility on God to heal your problems.  Think about this, maybe God is putting you in a position to help a friend or family member.  Do not place the responsibility on Him.

It would be better to say, “God encourages us to help one another, I am here to listen and be as supportive as possible”

8.  “What do you want me to do”  Well before I wanted you to listen, but then I realized your an asshole…

      Okay this is not necessarily a ‘bad comment,’ it is said out of confusion.  The tone in which it is said is where it makes the difference.  Its like asking your partner ‘you wanna have sex?’ you either sound sexy, or like you looked at the calendar and realized its the day you circled with your therapist to offer intercourse to your partner.  Sometimes people are not asking for you to physically do something, they are in need of someone to listen and not respond.  I try really hard to keep my bad days to myself, but when I was with my EX boyfriend (ex for a reason) I woke up one morning, and struggled to get moving.  I told him I just needed some time to regroup myself and he could do whatever (not trying to bug him) as I sat on the couch.  Tears were dripping down my face and he walked in the room, yelling “I mean what do you want me to do.”  Little did he know, if he could have just sat there for ten minutes and listened, without saying a word, everything would have been fine.  

It would be better to say, “I’am going to sit here and listen, you can either choose to speak or not.  I’am here and ready to listen.”


9.  “Everyone has bad days”  Yup, and you just made mine worse…

     No shit everyone has bad days!  It is not about a day, it is about a mental state or feeling.  This statement leads to someone to feel self consumed.

It would be better to say, “It seems like you are feeling hopeless and this is not just another day.  I am here to listen…”

10.  Is that part of your thing?  My vagina?  You cannot be referring to an illness as a ‘thing’, otherwise you would not be my friend…

     When talking to someone with a mental illness, you have to watch how you refer to the diagnosis.  A thing is an object, not an illness.  I had this said to me when trying to explain to a friend why I was losing so much sleep.  She knows I have Bipolar, yet she referred to it as a ‘thing.’  If you are a close friend of someone with a mental illness, educate yourself about it.  Take ten minutes to wikipedia that shit.

It would be better to say, “Can you explain this part of bipolar, I want to understand so I can give you better advice and support.”
Do not be upset if you may be at fault for saying some of these things, because guess what, I have to.  For those of us who have a mental illness, we have to understand this is a mistake people make, and instead of getting offended, make them aware, “I do not expect you to have the answer, I just need someone to listen.”

When someone comes to you to talk about their mental health, the response that most always works is “I am here to listen.”  You do not have to have the answer, and you are not obligated to find one, but for a family or friend you are obligated to be supportive.  I do not like to compare diseases, in the sense of “what would you say to someone who had (blank)”, every illness is separate and has different struggles, some more extreme than others. However, when you are speaking to someone with a mental illness it helps to think about it like this…would I say this to someone who had diabetes (just an example)? Take this example if a friend comes to you…

I have diabetes…

“Everyone has bad days, my sugar was low yesterday”

“Okay, what do you want me to do about it?”

“God will help you through it”

“There is someone worse off than you”

“You did this to yourself”

“It is just a phase”

“You do not look diabetic”

If you look at it from a different perspective, it may help in how you respond.  You have to be honest with yourself when trying to support a friend with a mental illness or in a situation that requires attention.  If you d do not feel comfortable answering, simply point them in the right direction, “I love you and want to be there for you, but I feel like a counselor will be better to help.  Let’s take some time to see where we can get some professional help.”

5 thoughts on “10 Things You Should Not Say to Someone With a Mental Illness

  1. Side note to #4….remember that one time you made Marc pull into Kohl’s in high school? Don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard in my life. Love this post, all great points…renaming it in my head, ‘Hannah’s Guide to Avoid Being a Huge Doucher’


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