Comments on
How to Respond to Insensitive Remarks about Mental Illness

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Associate Editor

How to Respond to Insensitive Remarks about Mental IllnessJulie A. Fast once told her dad that she disliked being single but felt like it was the best option at the time.

“I just get too anxious with dating.” He replied, “Well, no one wants to have a relationship with someone with bipolar disorder.”

Even close family can make insensitive remarks about mental illness from time to time. (We covered nine common comments here.) “I know for sure that he was not trying to be mean. He simply wasn’t thinking,” said Fast, a coach who works with loved ones of people with bipolar disorder, and author of bestselling books on the disorder, including Taking Charge of Bipolar Disorder.

But these comments still sting. And they can nick an already slim sense of self, which is likely bruised from your own biting inner critic.

12 Comments to
How to Respond to Insensitive Remarks about Mental Illness

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  1. GOOD STRATEGY TO REDUCE THE STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS (and other harmful effects):

    -Question the validity of the labels of psychiatry (a/k/a “diagnosis”) promoted through the DSM(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness), and assert your right to REFUSE psychiatric treatment as well as receive it.

    -Don’t accept any physical/bio-medical oriented psychiatric treatment that hasn’t been preceded by a discovered, or at least discoverable underlying physical trigger or cause in YOUR body, not just a theoretical body, that the treatment targets. Don‘t accept the validity of a theoretical underlying physical condition based only on questionable, often marketing-oriented “junk” science, often intended to promote the use of psychotropic drugs or shock (ECT).

    -IT IS THE USUALLY THE PSYCHIATRIC LABELS (a/k/a “diagnosis”) THAT TEND TO STIGMATIZE PEOPLE, NOT THE SYMPTOMS ASSOCIATED WITH THEM, and tend to justify most psychiatric treatment and the pharmaceutical oriented mental health monopoly of drug (and shock) treatment. The symptoms of these so called “illnesses” or “disorders” are usually problems with emotion, perception, thought, memory, behavior, and life experiences that are very real, but are not typically “diagnosed” (labeled) on the basis of ANY underlying physical conditions.

    -The (“diagnostic”) labeling process in typical psychiatric diagnosis is not a medical diagnosis involving an evaluation and discovery of associated underlying physical conditions. It allows a bio-medical monopoly on human problems, and continued, often unwarranted and unethical profits for the medical and pharmaceutical establishment- at the expense of your over all health and well-being. Don’t allow yourself/others to be labeled in this manner.

    -Psychiatry often demonizes these “mental ills” by suggesting that persons “diagnosed” are an actual or potential danger, or threat to themselves and/or others, with no more evidence than the labeling description and (inadequate) process itself. It is also often asserted that these “illnesses” are incurable, justifying continued treatment (typically a drug oriented form), and offering no alternatives to drug treatment (or shock). This IS the stigma that tends to result in the conclusion (of those “diagnosed”, and others who know the person has been “diagnosed”) that people so diagnosed don’t get better and are “permanently” disabled.

    -AND, unfortunately long term psychiatric patients subjected to drug/shock oriented treatment often do become very physically ill, disabled, and possibly violent or suicidal as the result of the treatment, not as the result of a labeled mental illness, as those promoting psychiatric treatment often suggest. Current drug black box warnings evidence this as well as the facts about the mass shooters’ ‘mental health’ histories

    -Insist on and seek alternatives to the bio-medical, drug oriented model for mental health treatment, and to the DSM oriented system of evaluation. ~Jim Keiser

    “One day in our collective future, people will shake their heads in utter disbelief that society once saw human experiences like profound hopelessness, altered states, voice hearing, and intense existential pain as “symptoms” of “mental illness.” Those claims will sound as absurd and dehumanizing to them as Psychiatry’s legacy of calling homosexuality a “mental illness” sounds to us, today. I smile as I imagine the day in which the only thing called “insane” by our human family is the medicalization of the human spirit.”-Laura Delano

    - ‘Modern psychiatry — with its Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals of non-existing diseases and their coercive cures — is a monument to quackery on a scale undreamed of in the annals of medicine.’ -Thomas Szaz

    -“The problem with psychiatric diagnoses is not that they are meaningless, but that they may be, and often are, swung as semantic blackjacks: cracking the subject’s dignity and respectability destroys him just as effectively as cracking his skull. The difference is that the man who wields a blackjack is recognized by everyone as a thug, but one who wields a psychiatric diagnosis is not.” – Thomas Szasz

    • I can tell you have thought this through and have strong opinions. Drug therapies do work well, for millions of people, and there is a plethora of research behind it. I use medication in conjunction with counseling, diet, lifestyle changes, exercise… I believed it’s saved my life, or at least helped me feel like living it. Yes, there are side effects, and I have had to develop a trust relationship with my psychiatrist to find a combination that helps the symptoms of my mental illness with minimal side effects.

      No approach works for everyone, but I would encourage other people with mental illness to seek psychiatric care as part of the healing process.

      • I second that. Not only has medication helped me, but I know many others that have been helped also. I have also seen the tragic results when people refuse or discontinue their treatment-loss of jobs, family snd friends, and even homelessness, not to mention the deep suffering they go through. There are really no words to describe the experience of mental illness to the person who has never experienced it. There are also no words to describe the experience of regaining health through taking medications. It isn’t a cop-out or a way of avoiding your problems. It is just the opposite, it allows me the clarity to deal with my problems which I did not have before.

        As far as dealing with those who have delusions and hallucinations, it is really common sense that you cannot reason with them since they lack the ability to reason in the first place. The only treatment that works is medication since it is a biological genetic illness. I get a little annoyed with people who think that the treatment of mental illness is a scam. Having been there I can assure people that it is not.

    • Hi Jim,
      I can see you are very passionate about this, and that almost certainly comes from having had some pretty horrific experiences and seen many others. I think I might understand why you feel this way.

      Yes there are lots of abusive and denigratory mental health “professionals” who make their patients worse, whose attitude to therapy is “take these pills”. Yes there are lots of other things we can do in our lives to foster our wellness, and drugs may not work for all.

      I also feel strongly about medication, it’s not for me. Mostly it doesn’t help with my condition (4th diagnosis is bipolar) and often the side-effects I experience are quite debilitating.

      I’ve had to search for a long time to find a good psychiatrist who actually does offer therapy. I live in a rural area and I drive a round trip of 3 hours to see her weekly. She’s very compassionate, non-pathologising and supportive of my decision to manage my condition without medication.

      I also have friends with conditions which they are medicated for, and although the medications sometimes need to be changed due to side-effects or not working as they should – they do help generally.

      I think many problems with medication arise from the same issues as the big one within mental health treatment – the patient is not listened to and responded to appropriately. When people are labelled or demonised for their mental health this is abuse, especially where this occurs in a context where they are seeking help for their condition.

      Cheers, Kristin

  2. I really enjoyed reading this article. I think it had a lot of useful advice. I think the key is not to attack people who misuse terms, but to educate them in a non-threatening way. I am totally comfortable talking to people about my personal experience with mental illness, and educating them. People are generally responsive if you speak to them in a respectful manner.

  3. I like the article. Would it be better to make sure that the person who makes the uninformed statement is aware that they did so before an attempt to educate is employed? It’s like the saying, “The first step towards recovery is recognizing that you have a problem.” If the person is unaware or in denial it will, at the very least I suspect, be less effective to attempt educating them.

    Also my experiences for the past decade and a half of therapy with different therapists has shown me that practitioners in the mental health field, at least in some cases, are very reluctant to Label a diagnosis under the premise that they do not want the patients to identify (or over identify) themselves with labels…particularly with labels that have developed strong negative connotations in the public perception. I can understand their concern. But if the label and its definition provide an accurate representation of the patient’s mental state of being wouldn’t it be more appropriate to advise the patient of such? My concern comes, in part, from being a fixer. If I know something is broken and I know how it is broken there is hope that I can fix it…or at least know who I can go to in order to get it fixed. Granted mental illness does not lend itself as well to such a conceptually simplistic interpretation as “broken” and “fixed”. These labels have their own stigmas attached to them. So, instead, I would change them to “healthy” and “unhealthy” when speaking in reference to one’s state of mental health. There may always be stigmas attached to such labels. So rather than focus on debating the merits of such labels it is important to keep the focus on the correct diagnosis and treatment of said mental illnesses. Please bear in mind that I also support the use of homeopathic treatments so long as they have been proven to be effective in their application.

  4. I find this to be one of the most down to earth, professionally written, and easy read with awesome information to connect to. I liked the educate them factor. I can relate to it. I never tell people I have bipolar. However, I do tell personal stories or maybe more use facts I learned through having it myself. I simply say that I know someone close or I know several people who have it, when I need to say anything at all. I liked the correction comment. My starting point in educating people is my pet peeve. She or he IS bipolar. Someone did commit suicide that I knew, and I believe it was his sister-in-law who actually used that phrase. I politely and actually made it a point of saying I was definitely not being negative towards them…there were other comments that were inaccurate…I wanted to simply educate on the subjects that were inaccurate. I don’t remember exactly how I said it, but I walked on egg shells. I explained that someone has bipolar, not is bipolar. He or she has his or her own personality and then there is the way bipolar affects that personality. Some of the other comments I just referred to were pity comments on how people with mental illness can’t be helped and how bad they felt for them. I kept it simple and told them that there are many people who lead normal lives and some people with bipolar actually do better in a high level career than without one. I’m becoming more and more vocal in educating people to the point that I think they are going to figure it out. I’m beginning to care less and less which I love. It’s becoming more important to educate people who offend me due to lack of knowledge, in a kind way, than it is to sit quietly and take it.

    Unfortunately I find that more people want to be in the dark than learn, but I target the ones who do want to learn once knowledge is offered to them.

    Sticking to the Science was a great suggestion. I think I do some of it naturally as I like to leave my personal experiences and stories out of it when I can or disconnect from my emotions as I educate or discuss as much as possible in a discussion. That is a great angle to work from. I will try to keep it at the forefront of my mind.

    Ignore the Comment ~ Sometimes it kills me, but I let it go. Sometimes I’m not up for the battle or am not ready to let the person or people making the comments know that I have the illness yet. I’m not completely ready to announce it even though it’s probably becoming apparent. It is true though I think I’m a bit more vocal than someone else would be because I have a hard time tolerating ignorance for the lack of educating oneself.

    Thank you so much for the article. I intend to begin following you.

  5. I forgot. It was refreshing to hear that anxiety is an issue that still affects your life when everything else is fine. I have the same problem in a different aspect of my life, and it is something I’m trying to find the right therapist to help me with. I want to overcome as much of that as possible. I look at it this way, I have overcome SO many other obstacles, why not this one too. Will it take time? Yes. Can it be done? I don’t know, but I’m certainly going to give it my all. Anyway, I’m not glad that you have that issue, but I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one with that issue. It is real.

    Thank you again.

  6. What about people who want to be happy all the time, and tell you that you are always depressed. This was from a close friend who had a mentally ill father. Bright comment and nice, too.

  7. Thank you for this article. Insensitive remarks can hurt so much, especially when they come from family members. Sometimes it’s hard not to take comments like “you are evil/lazy/a burden” personally when they are directed right at you – especially when you are already so adept at self-loathing. To hear your self-loathing commentary reflected right back at you from others is incredibly painful. All I want is to be able to function properly in society, hopefully have a job someday, and live on my own so I won’t have to burden anyone. Living with and being dependent on family members that see you as a burden is incredibly stressful and I find it has been impeding my recovery.

  8. This is a great article . I especially like the suggestion of kindly educating people. I once sat at a table of colleagues who were talking about how this client and that client must be bipolar b/c they did this and that and the other thing. Having both a diagnosed mood cycling condition and having studied psychology myself, I knew they were getting it all wrong (I don’t work in the psychology field). I tried to let it run it’s course without saying anything and to realize they weren’t trying to be hurtful, it was ignorance in the true sense of the word. Finally, when they quieted down a bit, I nicely and calmly pointed out that none of the characteristics they had discussed were actually indicative of bipolar disorder, that if anything they were indicative of narcissistic personality disorder but that without knowing the people or if they had a diagnosable disorder at all I certainly wasn’t going to put a label on them. I then explained that I’d studied psychology. They all just looked at me in amazement, and seemed truly to respect the knowledge I’d shared with them, which was actually a pleasant surprise.

  9. Hi Margarita,

    Thanks so much for this article. Helpful ideas on responding in ways that turn something very negative into a potential opportunity to educate others on mental health – and thereby hopefully grow societal compassion (or at least understanding) a little.

    I found it via a post on SANE.org’s new Lived Experience forum.
    Best regards,
    Kristin

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