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Friends gathering with coffee, discussing mental health

7 Things You Shouldn’t Say to People with Mental Health Issues (and 5 Things You Should)

Reading time | 5 mins

Sometimes it can be hard to know how to respond to someone when you find out they have mental health issues. What, if anything, will be helpful? Won’t you just make it worse?

As someone living with mental health conditions, the first thing I want people to know is that I would like them to interact with me like they always did. I don’t want people to suddenly think they need to treat me, or others like me, in a special way. Of course, being there for us and watching for signs that something might be wrong is a wonderful thing to do. But please don’t be afraid to laugh and joke around with us, like you always used to. After all, laughter is one of the most amazing gifts a friend can ever give.

That said, there are certain things that are less helpful than others. It isn’t the same for everyone, but in my experience the following should rather be avoided as it can come across as hurtful.

The ‘Don’ts

Don’t say – “Have you tried exercising? That will cure you!”

Of course, being active has many health benefits and activities like walking and swimming are proven to have a positive impact on our mood.

But this, while it does help, isn’t likely to cure mental health issues in itself. Often, people who struggle with depression also find it difficult to mobilise themselves to get active. Which in turn adds yet another thing not ticked off on a seemingly endless to-do list.  

So how about asking them if they’d like to go for a lovely swim or if they fancy walking the dogs in the woods. This will not only help your friend by allowing them to spend time with you, but will also get them out of the house.

Don’t say – “Your house/hair/clothing looks an absolute state, when was the last time you cleaned/washed?”

Feeling overwhelmed and not having enough energy to tackle basic tasks can be a symptom of some mental health conditions. This can really get in the way of day-to-day life. Instead of shaming your loved one for this, why not offer to help them out instead? Sometimes having someone to help out with the little things can really ease some of the worry and feelings of helplessness.

Don’t say – “I know how you feel” (unless you do)

If you know how they feel, it can help, but please don’t try and pretend you do know, if you don’t. If you’ve never experienced mental health problems, it can sound patronising or insensitive if you compare it with normal, healthy emotions. Admitting you have no idea how they feel, but want to try and understand, will go much further in helping your loved one.

Don’t say – “Cheer up, it can’t be THAT bad”

This one should really go without saying, but sadly it is still said. Mental health issues sometimes don’t make sense to the person living with them, never mind the people around them. Telling people to “cheer up”, or saying “it’s not that bad” and “just snap out of it” can do more harm than good. If it were that easy, trust me, we would do it!

Instead, ask people how you can help, or just ask them how they are doing. We don’t mind answering those questions at all.

Don’t say – “It’s all in your head”

I find this one hard to even respond to. Why would anyone even say it? Yet they still do. Mental health conditions are medically valid, can be completely debilitating and often require medical intervention. Suggesting a person is imagining a problem is very unhelpful. It’s   way more complex than this and it definitely isn’t something you can fix by changing one simple thought.

Don’t say – “You look normal to me”

While this may not offend other people I still remember the first time someone said this to me. My jaw dropped. Sorry, but how am I supposed to look? Mental health often has invisible symptoms, and people who live with them don’t look any different to those without symptoms. That doesn’t mean those symptoms don’t exist, nor does it mean someone isn’t ill.

Don’t call us selfish

I absolutely hate it when people say that those with mental health issues are selfish. The various conditions come with their own set of problems, yes, but would you call someone with a physical condition selfish? Certain mental health conditions can be fatal and no one chooses to become sick.

The ‘Do’s’

Do ask – “How are you?”

It’s a normal thing to do – don’t worry asking us! If we trust you we might actually say how we really are. However let’s be real, most of us are going to nod and say “I’m fine thanks,” but that simple question can show you care, and this can sometimes mean the world.

Do ask – “How can I help?”

Sometimes, simple things like offering a hug or allowing us to chat for a while can make a huge difference. More practical things like offering a lift to a doctor’s appointment or lending a hand with housework (see point above) are also a huge help. So if you truly want to help us, just ask. We will more than likely tell you what we need. .

Do ask – “How can I better understand the way you’re feeling?”

I’ll put my hands up that half-of-the-time, even I don’t understand myself or why I’m feeling a certain way. That said, if someone wanted to learn more about my conditions, I could easily point them to articles written by myself or by others living with mental health issues, to help them along the way. It’s nice when people are interested, and the only way to combat stigma and lack of understanding is through education.

Do – Remind us we are valid

Having a mental health condition can really chip away at our self-worth and dignity. It can even leave us feeling less than human, so please don’t underestimate the value of words of support. The odd word of validation here-and-there can make a huge difference.

Do – Remind us there is hope

Mental health issues are real, and when you’re in the depths of them, it can feel so hopeless. However, there are plenty of treatments out there that can really help us. This is where hope comes in.

Remind us that we are supported, that there are healthcare professionals who can help us and that we will not always feel as low as we do in that particular moment.  

The takeaway

Mental health conditions are as individual as the person living with it. While there is no ultimate right or wrong list of things to say, it will help you to take some time exploring words of comfort with your loved one. Learning what sort of things upset them will also go a long way to build supportive relationships.

NPS-IE-NP-00360 December 2021