Many times people with mental illness are told hurtful things. Other intend well but might speak out of ignorance or nervousness. This ends with all involved feeling uncomfortable and wounded.
Today while talking with one of the heads of the program I am at, I realized how I have become more open to comments that others make when I open up about my illness. Sure, their words might be confusing or a bit triggering, but at least they are trying to be helpful. Instead of hiding my struggles, I have been honest with my fellow students at Oxford. Thankfully, they have all responded wonderfully.
However, I realized how difficult it must be to talk to someone with an illness or disorder of any kind. What are you supposed to say? Just like when a friend’s loved one dies, people freeze and panic. Instead of thinking about how to care for their friend, too many respond out of their own insecurity or from their own prejudices. If we could all take time to sincerely listen and try to think of loving responses, much damage would be avoided in relationships.
Thus, here is a list of some comments that might be helpful to say when you learn that a friend or family member has a mental illness. Many of these suggestions can also be applied to other types of health issues or struggles. If you have more ideas, please leave them in a comment!
- You are really strong to go through all of this. Facing mental illness is a very difficult task. Having this struggle and still pressing on each day is not a sign of weakness but strength. Affirm your friend by telling him how amazing it is that he continues to fight without giving up.
- This does not change who you are. I still love you. If you say nothing else, be sure to communicate your love and acceptance. Remind him that he is more than his illness. Also remember to try to treat him that way.
- You mean so much to me. It hurts me that you are going through this. This shows that you are connected to your loved one without blaming her for your pain. By sure to emphasis your care more than your sorrow. You want her to know that this is difficult for you too but not make her feel guilty or worried about you.
- Please do not give up on yourself! Staying hopeful is often difficult for those mental illness. Without being downplaying her struggle, try to boost your friend’s spirits. See the bright future for her and help her see it when her eyes only view darkness.
- Life is worth the struggle. Make this point loud and clear even if they are a bit surprised at first. Giving up is not strength but weakness. There is usually not a need to go into many details, but be strong in your assertion to continue living.
- Please do not be afraid to be honest with me about what is going on in your life. All of us want people that we can open up to without fear of judgement. Allow your friend or family member to turn to you for that. He might not always do so but will be grateful that you are willing.
- How are you feeling about this? Sounds silly, right? However this simple question when asked earnestly can have a powerful impact. Try to look straight into his eyes and inquire about his state of mind.
- I don’t fully understand [that diagnosis]. Can you explain more of it to me? Chances are that you do not know everything about the disorder that your loved one has. Simply be honest about that fact and ask her more about it. If she do not know either or are stressed about relating the information to you, please do a little bit of research. Having a better understanding of his struggle is key to caring for her.
- Can we get coffee/tea together sometime and talk more about this? Everyone needs positive people to talk to about problems. If you want to be a supportive friend, carve out time to talk with your struggling friend. She might want to isolate, but try to get her to come out with you without being overbearing.
- Wow. That is a lot to take in right now. Can I help you out with anything? Try not to make this sound like you pity him. Instead, show that you care enough to help by making a meal, watching his kids, driving him somewhere, etc. Even a little action can make a huge difference.
Please note that not every answer on this list will work in every situation. Hopefully you will find most will be helpful, but know that everyone responds in different ways to each other.