One of my fears in talking about my mental health condition is knowing that some people might treat me differently because of it. The thought of someone interacting with me in a way that was shaped by their own personal prejudices or ideas about what a person with a mental illness looks like is depressing — mainly because I once maintained similar prejudices and uninformed notions about what “mentally ill” meant and looked like, too. In my ignorance, I assumed you could really only be clinically depressed if you lost your job or family or had a disease like cancer. I assumed schizophrenia was reserved for the “real crazies” who “hear voices” and “see things” and thought you could only have PTSD if you were a war veteran, rape victim, or had survived something catastrophic like Hurricane Katrina or the 9/11 terrorists attacks. And if your experience didn’t fit in one of those boxes, it would be hard to convince me you were suffering from something with a clinical diagnosis.
But then a wild, terrible, chaotic, and strangely beautiful thing happened to me — something that I liken to having your ship wrecked by the destructive force of a rogue wave that you didn’t see coming, nor received any warning about while out at sea. I was diagnosed with a mental illness. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, to be exact, due to the tragic death of my father at a young age and a childhood of abuse and neglect. I knew that I would never again look at or view mental illness in the same way when this happened. And I also knew that by admission of my diagnosis, I, in turn, would never be looked at the same way even by those I love dearly. This scared me and made me want to hide from everybody in my life. But I realized that I can’t remove the ignorance and misinformation that has surrounded the mental health conversation in our country and within my own generation. What I can do, however, is help those who don’t know very much about it learn to see it as something that does not make someone any less of a person, or “different” in the ways one might assume.
It is very easy to allow our opinions to be guided by our prejudices and ignorance — things we may not be aware have clouded our perceptions. And these opinions often dictate how we treat those who suffer. One of the most significant and potentially detrimental parts of this treatment is in how we talk to those who are mentally ill. Our words have the power to hurt and destroy or help and heal, and even neutral words may be misconstrued and come across as belittling when a sufferer is in a vulnerable place. Furthermore, the words we choose to use can also perpetuate the negative, toxic stigmas about mental health issues, and these stigmas can stifle truth and imprison people into believing the lie that they are not like everyone else, never will be, and have nothing good to offer.
For this reason, it’s crucial to educate yourself about what things to say or not say. It is as serious as the difference between healing and hurting.
Here are 10 examples of things you should not say to someone struggling with a mental health condition: