MH@H Mental Health

Mental Illness: How Not to Be Supportive

How not to be supportive of someone with a mental illness

Most of us probably have a few of them in our lives — the people that want to be supportive about our mental illness, but they’re just way off the mark. Here are a few off-the-mark classics.

The fixer
This is the person who wants to figure out how to solve your problems because then you’ll no longer have anything to be mentally ill about, right? Advice from someone who doesn’t have knowledge through lived experience or being a mental health professional is probably useless, and is most likely to only make you feel worse.

“Have you tried… ?”
My aunt’s neighbour’s dog’s best friend said that going out for a walk every day made them feel much better. You should try it! Or perhaps it’s getting a massage with Dead Sea mud or shoving jade eggs in your bodily orifices. It seems like there’s always some stupid thing that people feel the need to shove in your face.

“Other people are worse off”
This is the “children are starving in Africa” argument. As if by reminding you how bad some people have it, they’ll magically convince you that you’re not actually mentally ill after all. It’s not a competition for worst possible situation in the world. Other people having it worse doesn’t somehow mean that you’re a glitter-farting unicorn.

“It’s not so bad…”
Oh, you’ve been bullied, that’s really sad, but look on the bright side, you didn’t get physically assaulted.  Cheer up!

“It’s normal to feel that way—everyone does sometimes
Anyone would feel badly if they had to deal with [shitty situation x], it’s normal!  No need to worry about it! While the intent may be to say that it’s okay to not be okay, it’s like telling someone with pneumonia that you know how they feel because you get colds too, just like everyone else.

“Are you taking your medication?”
I get this a lot from my family; they don’t seem to understand that I can be unwell or even just having a bad day and still be taking my meds as prescribed.

“You look really good!”
This is the good old assumption that if you look good, then you can’t be sick.  Maybe if you’re reminded of this often enough, you’ll realize that you were just confused and you must not be sick after all. The brain is on the inside, not the outside.

“Try to focus more on the positive”
Thank you.  Perhaps I’ll need to remove my pink unicorn horn from where it’s shoved up my ass and use it to stab you in the eye. Now that would be positive! Toxic positivity is not helpful. Even if you feel grateful for the positives that you have, that doesn’t stop mental illness from kicking your ass.

In many ways, it’s easier to ignore the people who say stupid things out of stigma. I can just write them off as dumb-asses and move on.  I’m less sure how to handle the well-intentioned but clueless people.  It’s not exactly polite to ask people who hit them with a stupid stick.  Sometimes it’s easiest to let the verbal crap slide and try to focus on the good intentions.

What are some of the well-meaning but ignorant comments you’ve heard?

46 thoughts on “Mental Illness: How Not to Be Supportive”

  1. I’ve experienced ALL of these! The most recent was someone saying , behind my back nonetheless, that how can I still be depressed since I’m taking medication for it. The strangest one was when I was getting a mammogram and the technician said “but your pretty” inferring that it seemed so strange that I could be mentally ill. It’s the one I actually laugh about the most because of where her hands were when she said it. lol

    1. When I was 22 I took an overdose and in hospital one of the nurses asked me why I had done it because ‘you’re so beautiful’ – wtf? So only ugly people can commit suicide, and being beautiful means having nothing to feel suicidal about, right?!

      1. Wow that is completely ridiculous. So does that mean ugly people should be killing themselves to pretty up the gene pool? People can be so dumb.

        1. I know. I remember even in my zonked out desperate state being outraged. It’s pretty much the main thing that’s stayed with me from the experience.

  2. Yikes!! I am GUILTY of all of these!! I swear, it comes from a good (yet ignorant) place! 😀

    I was suicidal once, and I ran into these walls from my loved ones:

    “Quit being such a drama queen.”
    “Don’t you think you can overcome this on your own, without medical help?”
    “Um, your life doesn’t seem upsetting enough to justify this.”
    “NOOOO!!! Hospital bills!! Don’t do it!” Followed by parental swearing.

    Let me look closer at your list here…

    The fixer: Yeah, I’m guilty of that, because I’m always trying to solve problems. It’s my modus operandi.

    Have you tried… ? Same here, but I only do it with more arcane knowledge that most people wouldn’t know of. Probably not basic stuff like walking the pup.

    Other people are worse off: No, I hate this one. It’s condescending and, quite honestly, depressing.

    It’s not so bad… Likewise. Yeah, there will always be people who have suffered “more.” But that belittles everyone’s unique struggles and seems pejorative.

    It’s normal to feel that way: I’m guilty of this one as well. I’m always saying, “I’d be upset too if that happened!” (Like, when a friend tells me she’s crying.) In my defense, I think it’s a way of emphasizing that you’d have to be an inhuman robot to not be upset over stuff.

    Are you taking your medication? I can see how this question would get old. I’m not guilty of asking anyone, but I do allow my family members to ask whenever they want to, for two reasons: 1) I want them to feel free to check in, and 2) Occasionally, what do you know, I may have forgotten my morning pills.

    You look really good: I never give this one or receive it. Another friend of mine and I were once discussing this “appearance of normal” despite being mentally ill and/or having suffered abuse. She gets the same comment: “But you seem so normal!” I never get the comment. I left normal behind so long ago that I can’t even imitate it.

    Try to focus more on the positive: Eyeroll. There’s some context here. First off, this is an unkind thing to say to a mentally ill person. However, within my family, we say it to my narcissistic mother often enough to lose our vocal chords. She delights in creating drama. I think that’s a different situation, though. I do think, though, that saying it to a depressed person would be a well-intentioned (if clueless) thing to do.

    This post is very informative and has me rethinking my ways! I hope you post again with ways that people can be supportive!! yay!!

    1. yes, it is depressing to think about others having it worse off. The last thing I need when depressed is to think about how much pain there is in the world. I’m also ok with people asking if I’ve taken my meds, as long as it’s not in the middle of an argument. I don’t like it if it’s invalidating my emotions. But I’m ok with someone asking based on my mood or behavior being out of my norm.

      1. I think I’d be more ok with the med question if it wasn’t coming from my parents, because they like to think they know more about meds than I do and it drivers me crazy.

      2. You’re right! Context is important. If someone asked me if I’ve taken my meds during an argument, that would royally piss me off like you wouldn’t believe. It would have to come from a place of caring, not a snarky one-upsmanship ploy.

        And yeah, the whole issue of other people in the world having worse problems is terrifying to me. I don’t want to visualize people who have seriously abysmal lives. Just scary.

      1. Yeah, I hear ya about the meds question!! Oh geez, you have med-know-it-all parents? [Rolls eyes.]

        Yeah, that suicidal experience was scary. I was scared to death of being alone with myself, and I was begging for medical help, and my dad blew a gasket.

  3. ‘Perhaps I will need to remove my pink unicorn horn from where it is shoved up my ass and use it to stab you in the eye’…bahahaha.

    That comment in itself totally made my day!!

  4. What an accurate list! I usually get the Have you tried, You look really good, and Focus on the positive a lot. Most of the people who’ve make these suggestions are well-intentioned, but that doesn’t make it less annoying.

  5. Before I declared I was Bipolar at work, my psychiatrist just said I was depressed. On returning to work and handing my sick note in, she looked at me, laughed, and said THANK GOD YOU AREN’T BIPOLAR. They are really crazy. 😣

  6. I like to respond to the “starving children in Africa” but with “1 in 6 children are starving in America, too, but unless you are doing something about then don’t use them as an excuse for your own stupidity. Now you’ve just insulted millions more than just me.”

    1. That’s a good line! Although if I were to use it I bet it would be just my luck that I’d try it on a person who had spent years volunteering with Doctors Without Borders in some war-torn African country…

      1. Hey. If they had, then they’d probably have seen so much that if they didn’t struggle with mental health themselves, they’ve seen their patients do it. I somehow doubt the ones who really have done that kind of serious sacrifice will be the ones doubting mental illness. You are probably pretty safe playing the odds. 🙂

  7. I think some of these depend on the context and way in which they’re said. I actually really appreciate people giving me suggestions of things to try because I am kind of desperate and always looking for new things to try. I’d probably respond with whether or not I’ve tried that before and how it went if I had. Sometimes people have brought up meditation, and I’m like, “oh yeah, I tried that a year ago for about a month, and it seemed to help, but I haven’t done it in a while, I wonder if I should give it a try again.” It gives me hope to know there are lots of things I haven’t tried. I also appreciate people saying it’s normal because it feels validating, although sometimes I want them to also recognize that my emotions are more extreme. I like the “people have it worse off” one because it puts my problems in perspective and reminds me that I’m not the only one that struggles. It also reminds me that I have been much worse off at other times in my life, which helps me ground myself in how I am NOW. (I don’t have any broken bones, I’m not bleeding, I’m not dying) It reminds me to be thankful for everything I do have. Same with thinking positive. Although it would be more helpful to actually point out which good things there are in the situation instead of saying that blanket statement, it helps get me out of the all-or-nothing, everything-is-awful mindset. But those are my reactions if I’m hearing these things with an open mind and a somewhat good mood. If I’m too upset to listen and be receptive, or I don’t like the person telling me this, I’d probably get mad and defensive. So for me it depends on when/how it’s being said. But I definitely do appreciate these things at times.

    1. You’re right, context is very important. Suggestions of things that might help from people who actually know what they’re talking about, either from personal or professional experience, can be very useful. And with normalizing, it can be validating if it’s expressed in an “it’s ok to not be ok” kind of way, but invalidating if it’s used to minimize the significance of what the person is experiencing. I guess with all these nuances it’s nom wonder people get it wrong sometimes.

      1. Yes, exactly! That’s a good point that it can be hard to get it right with all the nuances. It makes me feel more empathetic towards the people who get it wrong. I guess there’s just no formula.

      1. I think it is hard for religious people to accept mental illnesses or emotional issues in general (my personal experience.) They have equated to the devil attacking me or spiritual possession…that is pretty hard to swallow. Nothing like feeling judged and damned to hell for struggling.

  8. People have said all of those things to me, too. The “good vibes only” and forced positivity especially bothers me, when I’m struggling (and when I’m not struggling, haha).

    1. I think there’s a big difference between putting positive stuff out there and telling people that if they just try harder to think positive then everything will be fine.

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