When she’s experienced a depressive episode, people have said things like “There is nothing to be upset about” or “Think how lucky you are. You are way better off than some people.”
Clinical psychologist Lee Coleman, Ph.D, has heard these dismissive comments: “Man up!”; “Stop feeling sorry for yourself”; “Shouldn’t you have gotten over this by now?”; “It’s not like someone died or anything”; “Just try to focus on the positive” and “Oh, stop throwing a pity party.”
Clinical psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, has heard the following remarks: “I get depressed too, but I just tell myself to let it go”; “You just need to be more responsible in your spending”; “I think you’re making more of this than there really is”; and “In my generation, we never complained or whined about things. We got things done.”
Dealing every day with a mental illness is hard enough. Dismissive comments — such as the above — are salt on an open wound.
“It made me feel weak and like taking medication was a joke,” recalled Martin about the incident in college.
“I don’t think too many people set out to dismiss others’ experiences with mood disorders,” Coleman said. “[W]hen it happens, it’s usually due to a lack of understanding or their own difficulties with tolerating emotional pain.”
Martin agreed. “A lot of people don’t know much about mood disorders just as you probably didn’t know too much about it until you were diagnosed.” That’s when Martin learned more about her illness.
But the ignorant remarks still sting. And others minimizing your illness can affect your recovery, Serani said.
Below are six ways to respond when someone dismisses your depression or bipolar disorder.
1. Practice self-compassion.
“Feeling truly understood and accepted is on par with food, air and water,” said Coleman, also author of Depression: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed and assistant director and director of training at the California Institute of Technology’s student counseling center.
So it’s natural to feel hurt or angry when someone dismisses or invalidates your experiences, he said.
But avoid letting these emotions — and the things others say — fuel your inner critic. Instead, Coleman stressed the importance of treating yourself with compassion. Remind “yourself that your struggles with a mood disorder are real and legitimate.”
You might tell yourself: “It’s too bad that they don’t understand me, but I don’t have to make it even worse by doubting my own feelings or experiences.”
2. Be clear about your own intentions.
According to Coleman, consider if your intention in the conversation is to educate the other person, let them know they hurt you, correct a misperception or to be heard. Also, consider if the person is open to listening.
If they are, and your intention is to be heard, you might say something like: “I appreciate that you want to be supportive, and I agree, it would be great if I could just change the way I think or feel. But I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that. Are you open to listening about what this struggle has been like for me?”
However, if they don’t seem open, it may not be worth it to try to convey your experiences.
3. Be explicit.
“It’s OK to tell [loved ones] what you do and don’t need from them,” Coleman said. Often people who want to be supportive simply don’t know how.
For instance, if you just want someone to listen and try to understand where you’re coming from, let them know, he said. Communicate that you aren’t looking for advice. (This can be a relief to others, because they don’t “feel pressured to ‘fix’ things for you or cheer you up.”)
You also can mention that their willingness to listen helps you feel supported, he said.
4. Educate others.
“Use [a person’s] dismissive statements as an opportunity to explain more about your illness. Enlighten them,” said Martin, who pens the blog Being Beautifully Bipolar. Let them know that a mood disorder isn’t “something you willingly turn on or off.”
Let them know that “depression and bipolar disorders are real medical illnesses,” said Serani, author of the books Living with Depression and Depression and Your Child.
Invite them to attend a community meeting on mental illness, she said.
5. Be stern.
For instance, you might tell someone “When you say things like that, you show me how ignorant you are,” or “You need to read some books on the subject,” Serani said.
By being stern you set a healthy boundary, empower yourself and avoid allowing a person’s words to be abusive, she said.
It communicates to “the other person that you won’t tolerate any kind of insulting, dismissing and hurtful comments,” Serani said. In other words, it teaches others how to treat and interact with you (i.e., with respect) — “how they need to be mindful about your illness even if they don’t understand it.”
Sometimes, being stern also helps individuals reflect on their inappropriate behavior, she said.
6. Ignore the person.
Of course, you can always ignore the person. “Social ignoring is a powerful device in dealing with negative behavior,” Serani said. She likened it to a child having a tantrum: Just like you don’t want to reinforce a child’s bad behavior by paying attention to it, you don’t want to “reinforce the person’s statements.” So sometimes the best approach is to simply walk away.
“Stigma and learning to be an advocate for yourself are parts of living with a mood disorder — or any chronic illness, for that matter,” Serani said. She noted that getting comfortable with these issues can take time. She suggested readers join support groups and online mental health associations to learn more and share experiences.