"Of course it is happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about what not to say to people with chronic illness. You can go read that here if you missed it, but here, I want to talk about mental illness more specifically. Now I'm not a psychologist, but I've been living with mental illness for a quite a few years now, and I have a couple of things to say(and not to say).
1. Don't Say: "That doesn't make sense; your meeting/presentation will go fine. Don't worry about it"
Anxiety is a green little monster (why green I have no idea) that claws its way around my body especially during times of transition or anticipation. It doesn't matter how many times the logical part of my brain tells the monster that nothing is wrong. I don't need you to tell me that nothing is actually wrong or that I will get my work done because I know that. I am very well aware that I am freaking out over nothing, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm freaking out. Also, I'm going to hazard a guess that the person hat you are talking to knows that even if they don't finish the research paper or embarrass themselves at a meeting, things will turn out okay in the end. The problem is convince the green little monster of that.
Say: "Your feelings are valid. I know that the anticipation is the hardest part."
Anxiety and depression are mean. They are monsters inside of your body, controlling your thoughts, coopting your brain as you try to fight them back with every coping skill that you have. Anxiety also feeds on uncertainty, so the certainty of having a friend/mentor/colleague who is validating is unbelievable helpful. It is positively terrifying to feel as if you are not in control of your own brain; if fact, it makes you feel like you belong in an insane asylum. Recognizing the validity of someone's feelings can make all the difference.
2. Don't Say: "Wow, you really have it all. There's no way you could have depression/anxiety/panic disorder. "
I might be too good at hiding the fact that I struggle with mental illness. So good in fact that a lot of people don't believe me when I talk about, and this may be because I tend to talk about it with a smile on my face, but I AM NOT SUPERWOMAN. Noone is. On the outside, I work very hard, but some of that hard work is fueled by anxiety and insomnia. Everyone including the one with the sparkly eyeshadow and beautiful planner can still be hurting inside. Telling someone that they "have it all" takes away their ability to have a "bad day" and feel okay about staying home from work.
Say: "Great job on that program/presentation. I'm really impressed with how you got so much done."
Complimenting one tangible thing is nice, and it removes the pressure of every part of me having to be "pretty to the public." I can run a great program, and then go home and cry for no reason. Sure, that's not the most pleasant experience, but it's better than feeling like a fraud because everyone thinks that you are perfect.
3. Don't Say: "I don't think I can handle talking to you about this. Are you talking to a professional about this?"
First of all, I know that this one almost always comes from someone who loves me. I assume that it is said out of fear of losing me or whoever you are talking to. These things are scary to talk about, but even scarier to feel. And yes, if the person is a danger to themselves or others, by all means, get them professional help. But, if the person who you were talking to felt alone beforehand (which, spoiler alert, they probably did because mental illness tends to do that), you just made them feel even more isolated. This one especially irks me when it is said by those in caring professions or who have offered to "be there no matter what."
Note: This one can also be communicated in uncomfortable looks or body language. These things are just as bad.
Say: "I don't know how to be most helpful in this situation. What would be best for you?"
Professional help is important, for me as well as many people who struggle with mental illness; non-professional help or help in a different context is also super important because it makes me feel like you care. Having these kinds of people in my life is what has kept me here. They are the ones who were shoulders for me to cry on or sounding boards at the end of a crappy day.
It's okay to not know what to do. It's just not okay to make me, or anyone else who is struggling feel more alone. So ask. It's as simple as that. Maybe all the person needs is a cup of coffee or a hug, or someone to sit there and tell them that they made it this far and they should be proud of themselves.
4. Don't Say: "That happened weeks ago. Why are you still thinking about it?"
Have you ever tried to control your thoughts? It's freaking hard, and if I could, I would. Now imagine doing so with little monsters running around trying to make you think about all of your mistakes or losses or problems that happened in the past. Pain is pain. It takes time, and you can never know what underlying issues the person has that are affecting how they are feeling. There is no timer on feelings--although oh my goodness, that would be amazing.
Say: "I know it still hurts. I'm here for you with whatever you need."
It hurts because it mattered. I can't change how I feel about whatever happened. It still hurts. The validation of my feelings is really helpful in and of itself. Additionally, some mental illness characterizes itself with repetitive thinking patterns, so I will have the same thoughts over and over again against my will, no matter how hard I try to stop them.
Thank you so much for reading. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.