When I was a little girl we went over to a friends house for dinner. The family had an older son who had lost a leg to amputation. Without hesitation, I told him, "Don't worry, it will grow back." I wanted everything to be better for him. But I did not understand his condition. Most people who have not experienced a form of mental illness often don’t have the first clue how to speak to someone who has. This is apparent in the many cliche and seriously unhelpful one liners I have become accustomed to hearing over the years. The intention is good, the result, not so much.
If I wouldn’t tell someone who is having an asthma attack to, “Just think positive,” why should someone suffering from depression or anxiety be any different? When you say, “Think positive,” we hear, “Press the magic button.”
Here are some of the things not to say to someone struggling emotionally...
1. "Tomorrow is a better day.” Most times, for us, it isn’t. It’s just a different day and we are doing our best to just battle through. 2. "It will all get better." Lord, help me. I’ve been hearing this since I was a little girl. I actually believed it 30 years ago. For most, the sadness (disease) does not go away. My ability to understand and live with it has improved but life is still a jungle. 3. "Just think positive." For those of us with a chemical imbalance, which is a very PHYSICAL condition in our brains, this sounds like magic. I don’t do magic. There’s no such switch. 4. "Trust in God. Have faith. He’ll heal you." I do, and while I believe He can, I am still waiting. This creates a sense of added disappointment in many people of faith that compounds an already debilitating disease. We begin to think that somehow our belief is not strong enough. 5. "My sister (friend, relative, co-worker, etc…) has that too." This attempt at empathy or connection does not work. When you are drowning, the last thing you want to hear about is the person who is drowning next to you.
And a few of the less subtle ones include (Yes, people actually say these things):
"Suck it up." "Pull it together." "Snap out of it." You know, because it’s that easy. Just press that button, people. I’m not even going to explain why these are not helpful. If you don’t know, just ask the person standing nearest to you.
So what should people say? If I was battling a better known or understood disease, how would you respond? Look for signs of difficulty or distress. This requires empathy. Start with, “How are you doing/feeling?” Wait for an answer. Listen. Or, if they seem fine, let them bring up anything that may be of concern. And again, listen. Some appropriate responses?
"Thanks for letting me know." "I hear you." "Thanks for being open about this." "This can’t be easy." "I am here for you." "I haven’t been in your shoes but I am trying to understand." "I’m praying for you." "Is there anything I can do to help?"
It's a tricky subject that can be uncomfortable for all involved. But these lives matter and the best way to encourage is to offer an environment where those suffering are not made to feel faulted or shamed. Just acknowledged and accepted. Supported and heard. Whether you realize it or not, you have the ability to be part of the remedy to their suffering.