There’s a lot about mental illness that’s misunderstood. Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of the issues surrounding mental ill health, partly due to the willingness of sufferers to speak out about their personal experiences, which goes some way to helping others to understand.
But there’s still a lot to do. Many people could never understand the feelings of desperation, isolation and hopelessness that mental illness can bring unless they experience it themselves or care for someone who is ill and see it first-hand. But that’s not to say that they couldn’t hope to understand, or know what to say to someone who is ill. Or more importantly, what not to say…
What not to say..
‘You don’t look ill’
Exactly how is someone who has depression supposed to look? Are they meant to be sat in the corner of a room wearing black and looking wretched? Yes, when people are at their most ill, they often stop looking after themselves. They can look unkempt, they can look sad, but there’s a huge number of people who are depressed that go about their daily business and you would never know that there was anything wrong. Many people are fighting battles we know nothing about, and maybe that’s part of the problem.
‘Cheer up, it might never happen’
Well, it already has. I don’t ever recall anyone being miraculously cured of depression after being told to cheer up. It sounds patronising and flippant when you’re on the receiving end of such a comment. If only we had thought of cheering up, we wouldn’t have had to bother with pesky things like CBT and medication!
And another thing, having depression does not mean that you are miserable 100% of the time. You do get moments of cheerfulness and find things that might make you smile, albeit briefly. So, if we happen to laugh at something we see on TV, it doesn’t mean that our illness is ‘fake.’
‘Pull yourself together’
Yes, that old chestnut. People might say this to you in various guises, including ‘you just have to get on with it’. Would you say the same to someone with a physical illness? Probably not. There seems to be more sympathy for someone with a plaster cast on their leg than for someone who ‘can’t be bothered’ to get out of bed and get a shower.
Offering advice about medication
Medication is always a contentious issue. Some people avoid it like the plague and for some it’s a lifeline. But it’s a very personal choice. Often it’s a choice between suffering side effects but having better mental health, or not taking medication and being unable to get out of bed at all. So, we don’t need to be told to take it or not take it, for fear that it will ‘change’ us. Unless you’re a doctor, then we might be interested in your opinion.
What we need to hear instead
Tell us that you’re here for us if we need you. Tell us that you’re willing to listen. Tell us that things will be okay. Even if we try to push you away (which we probably will) or it seems like you’re not getting through to us, just knowing that someone is there for us on our darkest days is sometimes all it takes to make a difference. You don’t need to understand everything about the illness, you just need to care.