How to Respond to Insensitive Remarks about Mental Illness
Julie 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.
Yet, while these statements do hurt, they don’t have to affect you — at least not so significantly. Below are several constructive ways for dealing with insensitive or ignorant remarks.
Acknowledge & Correct the Comment
“The solution is to acknowledge what the person said so that they know you are not attacking them and then correct them so they don’t say it again,” said Fast, who also pens a blog on bipolar disorder. She gave this sample response regarding her dad:
“Dad. It may seem that people don’t want to go out with someone who has bipolar disorder, but I’ve never experienced this. The guys I have gone out with are usually amazed at how well I handle things. The dating issue is about me, not about the guys. It’s my extreme anxiety about meeting someone new. Bipolar disorder is the reason that I don’t date, but it’s never the reason that someone would not want to date me. Does that make sense? I’m actually seen as someone who is very stable. I have to be, considering that I write books on the topic!”
Ignore The Comment
Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, you might prefer to disregard a comment. For instance, on Saturdays Fast watches soccer with friends at a local bar. Recently the person sitting next to her, whose team kept changing tactics, said, “God. Can’t they decide what to do? They play like two different teams. They are so schizophrenic.”
Several minutes later the same person said, “They really need to get their act together. It’s like they are hearing voices telling them different things. They play like they have bipolar. It’s awful!”
“My first thought was to tell her to at least get her illnesses straight. It would be more appropriate to use schizophrenia for the hearing voices comment. [But] I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t the place,” Fast said.
Educate the Person
People often say insensitive or ignorant comments because they simply lack the education about mental illness, Fast said. In fact, it’s only recently that words such as depression and bipolar disorder have become part of daily conversation, she said. Even two decades ago, they were rarely discussed.
Fast doesn’t view ignorant remarks as cruel. (“I’ve certainly said many insensitive things in the past.”) Instead, she believes that we’ve come a long way, and we can educate others on discussing mental illness “in a kind and supportive way.”
For instance, when someone confused multiple personality disorder with schizophrenia and being out of control, Fast told them:
“I know what you mean about the behavior, but schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder are totally different illnesses. Did you know that MPD is now called dissociative disorder? I never believed it was a real illness until I met people who suffer from the symptoms. It’s actually close to PTSD. Schizophrenia is a psychotic illness; the person stays the same, but the symptoms make the person say and do things that are out of the norm. It is [sometimes] about hearing voices, but not about being two different people.”
When educating someone, consider:
- Watching your tone: Fast always uses a “kind and educating” tone, even when she’d rather tell someone they’re just being ignorant. This prevents people from getting defensive. “If you say, ‘That’s a stupid thing to say. You have no idea what you are talking about,’ the dialogue is closed.”
- Telling a personal story: “I talk about myself first and then try to educate,” Fast said. You could do the same if you feel comfortable.
- Sticking to the science: Therese Borchard, a mental health blogger and author of the book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, prefers to focus on the science, and keep her replies less personal. “People absorb science and logic more quickly than personal opinions, so if you can ground it in neurobiology that tends to go further than a lengthy argument on why your feelings are legitimate.” For instance, you might say one or two sentences about cell shrinkage in parts of the brain, she said.
Refocus on Your Healing
“Many of the things others say have a kernel of truth to them and could be a helpful piece of a healing journey, but when reduced to just one offhand comment they seem simplistic and offensive,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the blog “In Therapy.”
(On the other hand, “They may also be projecting their own needs, struggles, and strengths onto the client, which often misses the boat completely.”)
Take the example of prayer. Someone might say that you’d feel much better if you just prayed. For individuals who are religious, prayer can be incredibly helpful. It may help “them feel energized, provide a new perspective, and can give them hope that a loving higher power is involved,” Howes said.
However, prayer is rarely the only effective intervention. “[T]here are often behavioral, emotional, relational, and physical self-care interventions they can implement.” And, of course, to someone who isn’t religious, this might be doubly insulting.
But whether the comment is ill- or well-intentioned, Howes suggested refocusing on what you need to do to get better. “Turning attention…back toward your own healing is the best [thing] you can do.”
Insensitive and ignorant comments sting. You can choose to correct or ignore the comment or educate the individual. But whatever you do, remember to refocus on your treatment and take good care of yourself.
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Tartakovsky, M. (2018). How to Respond to Insensitive Remarks about Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-respond-to-insensitive-remarks-about-mental-illness/