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Six things people with a mental illness are tired of hearing

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Mental health is a hot topic in the media at the moment, and rightly so.

For years people have been in the dark about the symptoms and severity of mental illness and as a result, we’ve managed to build up this steaming pile of stigma surrounding it.

With roughly one in four people coping with some kind of mental health condition, most of us probably know someone who will at some point deal with the symptoms of mental illness. As such, it’s important for all of us to be able to talk about mental health, for the sake of other people as well as ourselves. However, when discussing mental health with friends, family and colleagues it can be really easy to let the stigma that’s been around for years trickle down into our conversations about mental illness, even when we’re not aware of it.

Just like with physical health, everyone has their own individual experience with mental health, and it can be easy to forget that there usually aren’t any quick fixes for mental illness. Whilst it’s vitally important that we start more discussions about mental health, it’s equally important that the discussion is kept helpful, informed and respectful.

As someone who has dealt with mental illness for many years and had the opportunity to meet and talk to many other people with mental health conditions, there seems to be some sort of unanimity when it comes to how we feel when we talk to others about mental illness.

So without further ado, here are six things people with mental illness are tired of hearing:

1. ‘There are people far worse off’ or ‘There are people starving in the world, be thankful you’re not one of them’

This can be not only upsetting to hear, but quite frankly ridiculous. It’s one of those ways in which people see physical and mental health as two completely different notions. We wouldn’t tell someone with a freshly broken leg to ‘cheer up there are people in the world with two broken legs, you shouldn’t be feeling pain with just one’. Nor would we tell someone recovering from surgery in agony ‘oh come on there are people starving in the world, this is nothing really’.

So why should we treat mental health any different?

Similarly, we wouldn’t tell someone to stop feeling happy because there’s probably someone in the world feeling much happier than them, would we? The mere existence and experiences of other people don’t devalue someone else’s health, so we definitely shouldn’t tell them that it does.

2. ‘I understand how you’re feeling, I was literally so depressed when Game of Thrones finished’ or ‘I’m a bit OCD too, I always have to keep my bedroom tidy’

This is a difficult point to argue because, of course, mental illness is a spectrum, but terms describing very real mental illnesses are often bandied around to describe perfectly healthy emotional patterns of behaviours. For example, feeling a bit down in the dumps after your team has lost the football might hurt at the time, but unless the thoughts and feelings continue for long periods of time, and fill your head with severe dark thoughts beyond what is considered healthy, you wouldn’t be classed as ‘depressed’. Likewise for people comparing mild mood swings to bipolar disorder, when in reality what people who have the disorder experience is a great deal more intense than a regular mood swing.

Mental health is a spectrum with good mental health on one side, and poor mental health on the other. As such, it’s reasonable to think that you occupy a point on that spectrum regardless of whether you have an official diagnosis of a mental health condition or not. However, flippant throw-away comments about mental illness can often make those suffering from it feel distressed or invalidated, so they should be avoided whenever possible.

3. ‘It’s fine, just RELAX’ or ‘Come on, cheer up’

As if someone who’s suffered with anxiety for years hasn’t thought of ‘just relaxing’. If it was that easy to just ‘be happy’ then depression wouldn’t be a condition at all, so it’s really a pointless statement. It’s almost like telling someone with the flu to ‘feel better’ as if they had some sort of choice in the matter.

Mental health is equal to physical health, so let’s start treating it that way. Understandably, lots of people are simply trying to help when suggesting something like this, but it can make the person who is suffering from mental illness feel upset, as it shows the person making the suggestion genuinely believes that there is an element of self-control or choice over mental health.

4. ‘You should try going vegan, the dairy might be making you feel worse’ or ‘Maybe you just need some fresh air or yoga’

This might be similar to the last point in that many people are making these suggestions simply to be helpful, however, it can do more harm than good in some situations. As touched upon previously, if curing mental illness was as simple as doing a bit of yoga or eating less cheese, then I doubt anyone would suffer from mental illness at all.

Mental illness is beyond our control, just like the pain from breaking a limb or the ache of a migraine. Some things just can’t be fixed with a cup of green tea and a downward facing dog. 

5. ‘There’s nothing to worry about’ or ‘There’s nothing to be sad about’

Often people who suffer with anxiety will experience an extreme level of worry and physical anxiety surrounding a real worrying event, yet the nature of anxiety often means that the anxiety will still be there even when there are no events that would cause the average person to feel such anxiety. With this in mind, telling someone with anxiety that there is nothing to worry about is like telling someone with an ear infection that there’s no pain to feel.

To the person experiencing the feeling and emotion, the experience is very real, regardless of whether or not you perceive there to a threat. The same goes for depression, and other mental illnesses that are triggered by situations that wouldn’t bother an average person, yet it bothers the sufferer. Mental illness is a very real situation, so we shouldn’t invalidate it by making those dealing with it feel like what they’re feeling is unnecessary or unreal.

6. ‘You seem fine’ or ‘You seemed okay yesterday’

This is a tricky one because mental illnesses can often be invisible. Someone with anxiety might go about their daily lives smiling and laughing, rather than being curled up in a corner shaking like stereotypes would have us believe.  This isn’t to say, however, that the person isn’t suffering on the inside.

Saying that someone who claims they are struggling ‘looks fine’ gives the impression that you don’t believe that they’re going through what they say they are. This can be really hurtful and can make the person doubt themselves, often inflaming their mental illness. None of us can read anyone else’s minds, so it’s best just to believe and empathise with people who say they are dealing with a mental illness.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it’s really important to talk about mental health, especially for those struggling with mental illness. Bottling issues up can make any mental health issues worse, and if we don’t talk about it the stigma just continues. Don’t let what is mentioned above put you off talking to someone about your own mental health, and don’t let it put you off trying to help someone with a mental illness.

If you genuinely care about someone and their health and explain your intentions, then there’s no need to worry about hurting someone’s feelings or making the problem worse, but as with any delicate issue, mental illness sometimes needs to be approached with care as a topic of conversation. If you or someone you love is struggling and you want to talk about it, then do talk about it, but as the saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice (or helpful, or constructive) to say, don’t say anything at all.

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