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9 Things Not to Say to Someone with Mental Illness

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.

129 Comments to
9 Things Not to Say to Someone with Mental Illness

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  1. So, the simple and obvious truth is this-while it is not easy to be mentally ill,it is much harder to be with a mentally ill person be it a family,caretaker or a doctor. Sooner or later all the positive feelings are going to be gone,murdered by constant projection of the inner “pit of despair”. How can you help someone who continuously blames you for not feeling well just because you are still around? Let’s be honest, there are not too many friends around for those with severe mental illness. That leaves only paid help. And even when you are getting paid it is very hard to see that the person you are supposed to help is regressing more and more with age. No more activities,because those are going to be sabotaged, no more workouts,no more work,no more outings- and you are watching all this,thinking- Goodness, there is a soul, locked in this..making everyone around suffer to show how bad they feel inside.
    But understanding doesn’t make easier to put up with mental(and physical) bullying. And the only option is to step back…
    How about those family members that don’t have that option?

  2. My favourite (or least favourite) is: ‘but you were alright this morning?’ as if to say that my condition is on a day by day basis and not in real time.

    I also have Narcolepsy and I get the ‘I just don’t have the time to sleep as much as you do’. I won’t even start to rant about that!

  3. I’ve had to listen to all of those on a fairly consistent basis for quite some time, except for the one about praying. Suffering with bipolar/major depression the most depressing one was recently. My sister was talking about a friend at work who had ‘real’ bipolar. I guess because I take medication and have become a recluse to reduce my stress so I’m not in a mental ward means I don’t really have a problem. It’s difficult enough trying not to hate myself for being -me- and having family members believing that I don’t really have mental health troubles makes me feel even more like crap.

  4. How does one deal with a deranged person who thinks that only she is righteous and other people are cruel and wicked when she doesn’t get what she wants? She believes that she has resurrected and become god. Everyone, including rulers must come to her and worship her to be saved in the apocalypse. She has refused medical treatment and professional help.

    • Maybe not what you think….or actually Know. Just Maybe, you don’t Know Her at all. Just saying.

  5. my therapist said #2 in session . i have dissociative identity disorder and parts of me don’t like like my Therapist and won’t cooperate.her words were “or else you will be a vegetable all your life “

  6. My boyfriend suffers from anxiety and depression. One day we are fine the next he wants to break up. Then turns around apologizes and wants to make it work. He is on a roller coaster and taking me with him. I have been with him for 12 years now but it is to the point that I can’t do this anymore. Am I wrong for this? He is on Meds and seeing a psychologist. I don’t know what I am to do when he is constantly verbally mean and pushing me out of his life?!!

  7. My favourite one from a psychiatrist in a 136 MHA after I was removed from a bridge over the motorway …. The police should really arrest you for wasting their time or endangering other road users because you have the CAPACITY to understand the outcome of your actions. Yes I have capacity…. I’m suicidal not stupid. The two are not connected you ignorant stuck up toff.

  8. Let’s not forget “Oh, I get panic attacks too! I occasionally get stressed out!” or “I’m SO bipolar, because I have mood swings sometimes!” or “You’re depressed? I was depressed yesterday for like an hour.”
    People acting like they have a mental illness that they barely know anything about is really annoying.

  9. Clearly this triggered a lot of people’s memories, and it has good suggestions. as someone who has struggled with depression – and considering a friend currently hospitalized —

    Some considerations about what can happen in a job situation follow.

    Yes, people who do not suffer from a mental illness or an addiction can at time NOT understand that the individual at work who is showing signs of illness is not faking, seeking special treatment, or taking advantage of others. A couple of people I have worked with – under actually – were – bipolar, and extremely creative and well respected ( but had their nightmare sides as bosses, but then, so did others who were less creative).

    However, what is also not in the narrative is that the other people at work may also be under severe stress, have their own histories and vulnerabilities, and may have to pick up work that the designated “ill” person is not doing. Frankly – one of the other problems with someone w/ a diagnosed condition is that that person may engage in behaviors which undermine group cohesion or may also even attack others verbally. If there is contact with customers/patients/clients involved, s/he may be rude or off putting.

    In short that person at that time may not be able to do the job.
    I had a couple of extreme experiences and a lot of lighter ones.

    In one of the former a woman, who we later learned was diagnosed with schizophrenia,AND was still hospitalized at a time when she was sent to work in a community casework situation – the group knew none of this at the time; she wasn’t rejected at first – but she was unable to do the work, and was impossibly demanding of others, and other workers started withdrawing – from her and one another.

    In another situation, a woman who I suspect had a personality disorder essentially made herself the center of attention day after day with tales of her experiences, engaged in inappropriate behaviors and challenged every critique – accusing others of favoritism, lying, being out to get her, etc. She would work one person against another. Neither of these people could do the work – and demolished necessary teamwork – and were let go because there was documentation of their lousy job skills. Some mental disabilities cannot be accommodated in all situations.

    Once in a supervisory role, a young man had a “breakdown” – not specified – but thankfully he was able to accept assistance to take time for treatment and then an assignment to a less demanding position. That is an ultrashort version of an agonizing process, BTW.

    I’ve encountered a number of people with pretty evident issues who were “handled” by setting them up with situations where their supervisors “protected” them and extreme idiosyncrasies were tolerated.This meant that they were never called on to help in a crisis or even to do normal work because they made such a fuss – which meant that yes, they were resented and yes, people made jokes about them behind their backs – because that was an expression of anger – and anger is going to find a way to come out.

    I think that what this all means is that we all could use clues and maybe even training to improve how we relate to one another. But – in my case – having a mental illness doesn’t make me less or more human than anyone else. Which translates into – if we have a “known” problem, we too have to work at being empathetic and courteous to others to the best of our ability. We can’t always manage this – but when we can.

    There is a therapy – Japanese based I think – or maybe more than a single variety – which emphases both engaging in activity and being consciously grateful for what you do have, that I think may help with the behaviors we have to change .

  10. My son has adult a.d.d. and is pretty much normal when he is on his medication.But when he runs out of it,he’s really scary.Even more now than before his head injury. I try really hard not to get mad at him,but sometimes it’s hard.I feel when he hurt his head(fainted from dehydration).He left and someone else popped in.He wont seek help.Says I’m the one who’s crazy.I try to reason with him,but he just gets really mad and violent.Always breaking things.I just don’t know what to do anymore.Help!

  11. I have bipolar disorder, BPD and two other mental disorders as well that I have struggled with since adolescence, maybe longer. My family never knew why I was different (extremely shy, overly sensitive, sad and unmotivated – these are words I grew up hearing about myself usually negatively as if to imply I was seriously flawed) until I began seeing a psychiatrist at age 19. I know that it wasn’t easy dealing with me and my parents and siblings, although they love me very much, have all just become exhausted dealing with me. In the last year especially I have actually become more depressed than ever and more and more frustrating for my family. A year ago I was in a deep, deep depression that became so painful I started to dissociate and became suicidal. Lying face down on my bed, crying and desperate for someone to talk to, I sent a text to my sister that said only the word “help”. Her response still makes me cry and even angry. She said, ” I think you are perfectly capable of helping yourself”. I felt so rejected and unloved that I sat up, grabbed a bottle of sleeping pills and swallowed at least 20 of them. People have no idea how hurtful their words can be. I know its unintentional and its hard to know what to say if you’ve never been in their shoes. Still, that knowledge doesn’t take the sting out of the comments.

  12. I have been diagnosed with bi polar in the past and now scizho affective, I use to work in the oilfield 7 days a week , now I do not work and feel useless, I hate it when people wonder why I do not work and because I use to work so much I makes it harder on me, some people do not understand that it is easier to go to work and not have a mental illness than not work and have one.

  13. I am at a loss,my baby sister who is smart,and loving phoned me one day and starting crying,I hope that I was not to pick up on a mental illness.She started sleeping all the time on the floor and her family thought that she was depressed with leaving her job, she kept on asking for help at home but never got it,she finally walked out of her house with no shoes and started knocking on peoples doors a lady saw her a phoned the police.They took her to the hospital gave her ran-risperidone she responed and they let her out. She was a nurse and conned them to get out, she stopped taking med and is doing it all again,we do not know what to do because she will not go to the doctors, we do not even know what kind of mental illness she has. please help

  14. When I was a kid my Dad used to tell me I’d make a good Indian cause I was so lazy and that work was against my religion. I had a brain injury at age six and suffer from chronic fatigue and also have depression since early childhood. I have experienced suicidal thought since I was 8 years old.

  15. My boyfriend is suffering from ADHD.We found out about it today. He had been acting irrational for past few months but i had no idea it was because of it. I might have asked him to change his behaviour alot of time before i knew about it. But now I realise that was not his fault and i want to help him with it. But I am not sure how to.

  16. This is a good article. It’s nice to see supportive comments. But following on from the one-sided article and nasty comments on people with bpd I would think the advice this website would give for us would be; 1 use inaccurate, outdated, biased information in your approach 2 tell them to go and jump off a bridge 3 avoid them whenever possible 4 always remind them how horrible you think they are 5 tell them they don’t deserve the support and understanding that those with other mental health conditions do. 6 falsely assume they are manipulate and dangerous. 7 Don’t bother with a professional diagnosis just decide yourself if a person had bpd.
    I doubt this post will see the light of day!

  17. dipression is a sirous desease , i have been diagnose a general anxiety ,my phsyciatrist gave me a medicine antisychotic it help me a lot, Of course you need to pray also God is in control in ourlives .

  18. Thanks so much for writing on this topic. It will be so useful to many. :-)

  19. #11: You just need to exercise!

    That one annoys me more than any of the others

  20. I agree with what you say in this article; however, after living with loved ones who suffer with bi-polar for the past 30 years, I have to say you expect too much from onlookers. It is EXTREMELY stressful and damaging to us, more than anyone who has not lived 24/7/365 with bi-polar loved ones to imagine. We are paralyzed to say or do any thing to improve the situation. I have tried to speak, not speak, hug, PRAY, sought professional care, prescriptions, vitamins, herbs (legal & illegal),… you name it. I have helplessly watched three generations destroyed by this in my family.

  21. This is actually the most painful blog about mental illness I have ever read, to date. Every people I told about me told me this. From then, I stopped telling every person around me anything. Knowing I had a problem like this (but not addressing it as something severe), I always pretend that it was just a phase and that I am now okay… Thanks to their thoughtful and mind-waking comments and advices.

    To be honest, I feel even worse after my closest pal told me that none of my “depression” exists because I never even consulted a doctor. He believes that I am just pretending to be sad and depressed… An excuse for me to be lazy, and to draw attention.

    I really want to seek help but I have troubles financially. But once I earn enough money for my own, I’d do it. I really want to make it up for myself because I have hurt myself physically (suicidal attempts, not eating so I can have complications in my body, etc.), and probably not doing it for anybody else because I lost faith in them when they changed the way they treat me the moment they knew about my condition.

  22. I have a friend who is a brilliant, brilliant musician. He has been working on a new album for years now. Lately, he seems to have given up and shows no interest in finishing, even though he clearly admits his entire career depends on its release. I think he suffers from thinking it will never be good enough (trust me, it’s amazing), although I don’t know this for sure. He just says that he can’t bring himself to get to the studio to work on it, for some reason he doesn’t know. He has been institutionalized on a couple of occasions prior, so there is history of mental illness there. He is estranged from his family, so there is no support there. I’m trying everything I can to help him “conquer” his issues – I’ve offered to help him find a therapist and/or doctor – and I’ve restrained myself from becoming angry at him for giving up (this affects not only him, but everyone on his team such as bandmates, manager, booking agent, investors, etc). Does anyone have any suggestions on something like this? I just don’t have the skill set to know what to do…I’ve researched a lot on the net, but so far I’ve yielded no results. Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

  23. How about when you try to explain bipolar disorder to someone and they just smile at you in a patronising way and say “Isn’t everyone a bit like that?”

  24. I was mis- diagnosed by a p.a. at a medical office he wrote in a report a diagnosis of my illness that I have maintained for 34 years, do these people have the right to label you, especially in drs. notes? seriously what givs him the rite, I have a dr, for my condition.

  25. What is the problem/illness referenced in number 8 (“Why can’t you work”)? I was only reading the article out of curiosity but it sounds exactly like myself

  26. I was having problems in a bar in London with my agoraphobia and social anxiety. It was just enough to remain there and keep my composure.

    My family could see I was in discomfort, but I said I was doing ok, but would prefer if people wouldn’t talk to me.

    That just meant everyone started talking about me. When my Dad turned to me and said ‘you know what you need, an outdoor life. You should move to Australia’ I stood up and walked home.

    When people are having an attack, more than likely they won’t want to interact with people, so another thing not to say is ‘Are you alright?’ Say yes and they will say are you sure, and the conversation goes on. Say no, and it will still go on.

    There will of course be the opposite to this article and that is the best things to say. I saw a colleague having an attack of some kind so I simply said ‘what ever you need to do, you do it. And if you need help in anyway, we’ll do that for you.’ I then left him be and the pressure of the work place dissipated with those words and he was ok again. I think it was the only time in my life when I felt like a proper grown up with all the answers!

  27. I am currently seeing a counselor and almost everything in this list he has told me at one point it drives me absolutely insane, I’m trying my best but I still feel the exact same as the first time I saw him only difference is the amount of people who know about it

  28. At one point I thought that things were getting better for people with mental illnesses as far as stigmas go, but I don’t think so anymore. Some of the outward animosity may not be the same as 40 some years ago, but most people who haven’t been through something cannot understand what someone else is going through. I have trouble making connections with people, trusting people, am extremely anxious, depressed, cry too much, and need medication just to deal with daily life. My doctor doesn’t think that I am bad enough to get disability, and I wish I could get a regular job. I went back to school a few years ago and got my degree hoping to do better after several rejections for a different position where I was working (a library) and came to the decision that I had to go back to school to get anything … I’ve spent the last two years working at this place and another, was let go from one because you had to pass two tests – I was all worked up…only passed one of them. Tried another job…it went okay for a while, but anxiety also caused me to quit that one. Did a little eldercare for a couple of people that I knew- still tough. I do some subbing, but even that I get worked up over. I’m so scared. Went to a counseling place last fall, but all they did was give me a stack of paperwork to fill out. I think I always had trouble with anxiety and depression but as got older and more responsibilities and expectations made it impossible.

  29. i have been diagnosed with PTSD with severe panic and anxiety disorder. I’ve been in the doctors office with a full blown panic attack thinking I was going to die and being misdiagnosed with asthma. I suffered a period of agoraphobia after being caught in a tornado. I am claustrophobic, and have severe triggers caused by trauma from my childhood.
    *I have been in an elevator when it fell, and so have major issues with them. I once had to take one in my work duties. I was with two colleagues. They were told about my experience, and thought it was funny to jump in the elevator. When it caused me to have a panic attack-they looked shocked, and couldn’t understand why I got mad at them.. It was just a joke.
    *I have been told to just listen to soothing music to help me calm down.
    *i have been told to just get over it.
    *i have been told to fake it until you make it.
    *i have had family members get angry when I made them turn back from a trip because I just couldn’t do it.
    *i have had people jump at me to startle me when they know that it makes me scared enough to become violent.
    I am much better, but it’s a struggle. I can go a long time without a full blown panic attack now. Stress does cause anxiety.
    For the person who says meditation.. Meditation, and hypnosis cause an instantaneous-full blown panic attack in me, because I am forced to focus on my body. Every tingle and skipped beat causes the fear of fear to rise.
    For the mother who talks about happiness is a choice… When your mind turns on you, and becomes the enemy, it’s very difficult to just survive minute by minute. Happiness is making it through another moment.
    If you say stupid hurtful things to a person with mental issues, you do more harm because you can’t be trusted and the person will clam up. Talking and talking and talking some more, is what helps the most. You talk about it until it doesn’t affect you the same way.(my experience with PTSD) you talk about it until it’s more like relating an old story than what is triggering you.

  30. I am thankful you included just pray about it because I believe even someone with a strong faith in God can still suffer. Also, as this article stated, being anxious about something is not the same as dealing with panic attacks and just because someone may have been able to work through their anxiety doesn’t mean someone else can and I am speaking from experience and have been hurt by well-meaning people who don’t fully understand what I have lived with.

  31. I realize these r all a couple years old n my comment may not ever b read, but I’ll do so anyway. I am diagnosed SMI- Borderline PM, schitzoaffective disorder, PTSD, severe depression, anxiety disorder, and social phobia…quite a list. I have suffered most of my life, starting in early childhood. I’ve spent most of my life in a negative ‘why me’, ‘I’m crazy and can’t fix it’, ‘nobody understands/cares about me’, ‘I have issues n can’t do many things because of them’, n so on state of mind for 30+ years. I don’t like the ‘u haven’t been taking ur meds’ n the ‘ur crazy’ comments at all, but seriously people, get real. The real reason u take offense to most of these comments is because ur mental. Most of these comments r said positively n meant to try n help us. Instead of feeling sorry for urselves, lashing out at these people who obviously care, acting like everyone needs to change to themselves to suit u, n it’s OK to behave poorly cuz ur MI is pathetic. I own up to my issues n work my ass off to make myself better n I fortunately have improved, a lot. It’s hard work n u have to really want it in order to get better. Most of u like using MI as an excuse to get away with ur behaviors, u use it as a crutch n expect everyone else to excuse ur actions n words because of bn sick. U don’t deserve to get away with it. MI only gives a reason to y we act out, not an excuse to get away with it. If ur not institutionalized then u obviously can function n u can take responsibility for ur bad behaviors n try to change them. It’s possible if u REALLY want it. Otherwise, go somewhere away from everybody n feel pathetically sorry for urself by urself. The reason we get looked down on is because we do not accept responsibility for what we cause others n ourselves, so we have only ourselves to blame. Quit feeling sorry for urself n work on improving ur situation. U can’t cure MI, but u sure as hell can better urselves with commitment, hard self work, meds, caring people, forcing urself to do what scares u most (going in public alone), taking advice from others, n #1 believe in urself. But definitely stop using MI as an excuse to destroy the lives of those who care about u. U don’t have that right, no matter what type of illness u have. Go b alone if all u want to do is b a loser, cuz ur right about one thing, nobody understands those who continually n knowingly hurt themselves n others. Like I said, unless ur deemed insane, u know full well what ur causing others n therefor u r responsible for said behaviors.

  32. Don’t you ever disregard prayer! How dare you think that your psycho babble crap is better than talking with the God who created you!

  33. My adult son with bipolar recently committed suicide. I had tried so hard to get other family to help and recognize where the situation was headed and so many were saying those same comments to him and I both. I felt very isolated the past year. He wasn’t living with us, he wouldn’t take meds, and got angry with me whenever I brought up getting some help. I was afraid to get to far from my home in case he came home or called and needed me. NO ONE BELIEVED ME! Until he hung himself! Now people are all suprised and sympathetic and I’m angry not at him he was sick, but at all the people with their stupid comments. My son wasn’t a coward and it wasn’t a selfish act. I know in my sons mind what he did wasn’t only for himself he knew it was stressful on everyone he had told me I just need to end it for everyone. My son was sick and got teased and made to feel like a hindrance. My son has peace now fo the first time in years.

  34. Personally, I think a lot of these people, be they providers or lay people, are cruel and insensitive because they have mental health issues of their own and being confronted by a person who reflects similar issues back to them is intolerable for them to accept. So they react with hostility. Or they are just so stupid and self-centered that they will never be safe for those who are emotionally vulnerable.
    My biggest challenge is to get doctors to believe I have complex health problems that are not caused by anxiety or depression. Had one doc tell me I broke my ankle on purpose to get attention. Another genius said my pain would go away if I could learn how to relax. 2 days later I was having emergency surgery. (Don’t think they sucked out all the anxiety though. LOL.)
    Another pet peeve: social workers who take a couple of psych classes and think they are psychiatrists. Talk about bad attitudes! Several have said there is no more stigma against mental illness, and that patients “stigmatize themselves”. They also say they “don’t believe in the DSM” and giving someone a psychiatric diagnosis is discriminatory. There were questions as a patient you could not ask because “the nature of your treatment is not your concern”. They did not believe I had a college or a graduate degree and would not even look at certified transcripts because by doing so they would be letting me manipulate them. So I was labeled delusional. One of my favorites was a receptionist gossiping about my treatment to my employer and getting me fired, and being told it was OK because receptionists at the clinic did not have to observe HIPPA laws. How about this one: having a mental illness as proof that you are an animal abuser and should not own pets? Oh, I could go on but I won’t. No, one more: staff saying in response to your talking about not being believed “I can’t understand how you feel because I am not mentally ill”.

  35. The comments that have blown me over:
    1. When I tried to explain to a co-worker why I was not seeking a promotion, she said, “Yeah, I could tell there was something really wrong with you all along.”
    2. “Yes, you’ve worked here 12 yrs, but since you’re leaving because of mental illness, it’s probably better not to give you a going-away party.”
    3. The day I was first diagnosed, my husband of 13 yrs said, “I don’t think I want to be married to a mental case.” So I filed for divorce, for the same reason.
    4. “Your brother said you were just trying to get attention when you tried to kill yourself.” My brother denied this later.
    5. When I thought no one but family knew, 20 yrs after diagnosis(ha), a woman at church revealed, “Yes, we’ve been getting together for years and praying there would be a doctor who could help you.” That was recently. The trapdoor opened. I’m still falling.

  36. They forgot “Are you taking your meds?” every time you experience anger or sadness or some other human emotion that’s more than “okay”.

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