Julie Fast’s friend went to the hospital for a terrible colitis attack. “It was so serious they sent her straight to the ER.” After reviewing her medical records and seeing that her friend was taking an antidepressant, the intake nurse said, “Maybe this is all in your head.”
When it comes to mental illness, people say the darnedest things. As illustrated above, even medical staff can make incredibly insensitive and downright despicable remarks.
Others think teasing is okay.
Fast, a coach who works with partners and families of people with bipolar disorder, has heard stories of people getting teased at work. One client’s son works at the vegetable department of a grocery store. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder and poor social skills. When his symptoms flare up, his coworkers will ask questions like, “Why do the labels have to be so perfect? Why do they have to be in line like that?” They’ve also teased him about being in a psychiatric facility.
But most people — hopefully — know that being an outright jerk to someone about their mental illness isn’t just inappropriate and ignorant. It’s cruel.
Yet there are moments when even neutral words may be misconstrued, because the person is in a vulnerable place, according to F. Diane Barth, LCSW, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. “The truth is that it can be complicated to find the right comment to make to someone who is struggling with emotional difficulties.”
This is why it’s so important to educate yourself about helpful things to say. In fact, Fast, author of several bestselling books on bipolar disorder, including Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, believes that we have to be taught what to say. “It’s not innate at all to help someone who has a mental illness.”
So what makes an insensitive remark? According to clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, “The problems happen when people make statements that imply that mental illness is a sign of emotional weakness, it’s something that can be quickly overcome with some trite homespun advice or they minimize it as a minor issue you can just get over.”
Below are additional examples of problematic statements, along with what makes a good response.