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What Should You Say to Someone Living With Mental Illness?

When a close friend or family member is dealing with a mental illness, the want to discuss and work out the problem is often the first instinct. After all, in a rational world, counting your blessings and making goals is a great way to move your life in the right direction. Unfortunately, mental issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD), bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia, and psychological eating disorders are rarely based in a rational world. Some of these illnesses are caused by genetics and irregularities in the brain. Others are based on traumatic experiences that may lead to phobias or compulsive behaviors. Mental problems affect people in many different ways, and it can be very easy to feel like you’re walking on eggshells when trying to help. If you are part of a loved one’s support system, what can you say to comfort them during a particularly difficult day?

Listening Is More Important Than Speaking

Before we discuss specifics, there is one piece of advice we like to share: it is more important to listen than to speak. Humans are natural problem-solvers; sometimes we unintentionally give advice and even criticism. Mental illness is not a problem meant to be “solved”; instead, it is a problem to be understood and overcome. We believe everyone who endures through mental pain and disorder can live a full and happy life with therapy, medication, and support, even though many of these conditions are not treatable in a permanent way. That being said, you don’t have to stay silent. There are ways to communicate that don’t make living with mental issues more painful or shameful.

What Can I Say to Show Support?

As a member of your friend or family member’s circle of support, you love them and instinctually want to shield them from pain and anxiety. This is natural, and we love to hear that our patients have such help once they return home. Here are some simple ways to communicate and show your love for them.

1. “Are you okay?”

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase: “If you see something, say something.” This also applies to those living with a mental disorder. If you notice that your loved one is having a particularly hard time dealing with their feelings and emotions, the best way to see if they need help is to simply ask. Even if they insist that they are fine, this simple act can show that someone cares enough to notice. This alone can lift them from a dangerous place.

2. “I care about you.”

This question can change the outlook of the entire day for someone living with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, and a host of other mental health issues. One of the primary reasons mental illnesses are so insidious is because they make the sufferer feel like they are completely alone and isolated from friends, family, and an otherwise “perfect” life. This is also an excellent example of “speaking less but saying more”, as the sincerity and kindness you share in a moment of panic and uncertainty can help anchor them to reality, that there really is someone who loves them.

3. “If you’re ready, tell me how you feel.”

It may take time and patience to gain this level of trust, especially if they have been shamed for mental illness in the past. They may not share specifics, and that’s fine. Even if they share their feelings about the day, taking the time to listen can make all the difference.

4. “It’s okay to feel this way.”

Due to the stigma surrounding mental diseases, very few people who deal with serious problems like major depressive disorder, bulimia, or PTSD will believe that their feelings are valid. Phrases such as “life shouldn’t be this way” and “I shouldn’t be like this” are very common. These thoughts can be compounded by the desire for loved ones to “fix” the problem. This can lead to feeling “less than human” and inferior to those around them. Remind your friend or family member that they are not defective and undeserving of trust and compassion. Their illness is not their identity, and their feelings are valid. Even thoughts of suicide, while extremely serious and dangerous, should never be dismissed; it may not be “okay”, but it is as real as any other feeling.

5. “Let me take care of ‘X’ for you.”

A common question you may ask is: “Is there anything I can do for you?” Many will invariably say “no”, as few people in the midst of shame and depression will want to inconvenience someone else. Instead, be specific. For example, you might say: “Let me take care of the dishes.” Another example might be: “I’ll take the kids out for ice cream while you rest.” While a bit of assertiveness may be required, taking care of something specific may lift their whole mood.

The Importance of Understanding (When You Actually Do)

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (or NAMI), about one in five Americans have experienced some form of mental disorder in their lives. Those that have suffered from serious mental illness are about one in twenty. This leaves four in five that have little personal experience with mental illnesses, and nineteen in twenty that can’t relate to those whose lives are dominated by a very specific disease. This being the case, those living with mental disorders often feel separate from their families and friends, even from spouses and partners. Whether you have personal experience or not, the key to supporting them is by simply being there for them.

1. “I understand what you’re feeling.”

Depression is not just sadness. Anxiety is not just nervousness. Bipolar disorder is more than just mood swings. Be cautious when saying you understand, as you may be saying something that isn’t true. This phrase and the messages you convey during such conversations will make them feel like their condition is invalid. However, if you truly understand their condition because you have experienced it yourself, this can be a great tool for showing your support.

2. “I’m sorry you’re having a bad day.”

This phrase requires a bit of sincerity and context, or it may come across as dismissive or pitying. Sometimes it may even sound like this: “I can see you’re having a bad day, I’ll talk to you again when you’re normal.” This is when listening is more important than an attempt at sympathy. Everyone experiences bad days, but not everyone knows what it’s like to experience a PTSD trigger, a bipolar mood swing, or a period of schizophrenic psychosis.

3. “Getting medical help is really worth the effort.”

This topic should not be approached lightly. According to one Princeton Public Health essay, one in four people who suffer from mental disorders are not diagnosed and have never sought medical help. There are many reasons for this. As the essay shares, jobs and schools often allow people with broken bones to take time off to heal. But mental illness is rarely treated the same way, and seeking medical or psychological help would force them to admit to a lifelong problem. If you have a mental disorder that has never been treated, demanding someone else seek treatment would be a bit hypocritical. If you truly wish to help your loved one find medical help to ease some of their symptoms, it may prove beneficial to take the initiative. Once introduced to an understanding psychologist and psychiatrist, they will see that their struggles and anxieties can be eased through therapy and a specific medication plan.

Contact Ardù Recovery Center in Provo, Utah for Emotional and Spiritual Support

If life becomes an unbearable burden for you or a loved one with mental illness, the Ardù Recovery Center can be a valuable resource for structured healing and support. Give us a call and schedule a time to tour our facility. Together, we can discuss how we can best help improve your quality of life.