Mental illnesses, no matter the form, are trying to deal with. Psychology and the brain are just now being understood and medication for many illnesses is still quite new. And yet, often people say insensitive things about mental illness, whether unintentional or otherwise. It can be difficult for many of us dealing with an illness to continually hear things like, “people with mental illnesses are crazy” or “if you just try hard enough, you’ll get better.” So I thought compiling a very small beginners list that gives people without mental illnesses some understanding could be helpful.
- The mental illness, disorders, and disabilities spectrum is vast. Immensely, seriously, hugely vast. Like ever-expanding universe huge. Despite the two being medical issues, you wouldn’t classify a skin lesion under the same category as a cold, would you? Similarly, not all mental illnesses are the same. It can span anywhere from autism, depersonalization disorder, social anxiety, to dyslexia. It’s okay not to know something about a mental illness, I doubt you know everything about all of the physical ailments and illnesses in the world. However, if someone you know is suffering from a mental illness, it would be nice to ask them about it or look it up, rather than simply assuming “Asperger syndrome just means awkward.”
- Don’t assume mental illness means crazy or violent. This goes with the first thing to know, but it should be stated very plainly that in hundreds and hundreds of studies, it’s known that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime rather than the perpetrator. Statements, then, such as, “Let’s just prevent the mentally ill from owning a gun” are offensive. Even in illnesses where delusions and hallucinations are common, violence/erratic behavior is still NOT more prevalent for them to be more violent than people without mental illness. It’s easy to blame those with mental illnesses for the problems in society, but it does little other than to make those with mental illnesses feel alienated.
- Sadness isn’t depression, having a mood swing isn’t bipolar, and washing your hands isn’t obsessive-compulsive. Do not downplay these very real illnesses. Don’t normalize the actual debilitating social anxiety your friend has by saying “the other day I almost had a panic attack!” Some people try to say these things as a way to relate, but ultimately it belittles what people with these illnesses commonly deal with. Don’t joke about being bipolar because “you totally went from hyper to grumpy in about five minutes.” You aren’t. That’s not what the illness is, so please don’t say it.
- Self-harm isn’t any less serious because you feel the person is just “trying to get attention.” For many people, self-harm is a way to get a release for anger, depression, numbness, or a combination thereof. Though their wounds might be visible, it’s still the sign of a very serious issue and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Self-harm is usually explored when other options have run out or the person feels like nothing is working. Help is needed, so curse your judgment. Same goes for people who mention wanting to die; even if you feel it’s attention seeking, it should be taken seriously every time.
- Don’t treat a person inferior because of their disorder. This shouldn’t need to be said, but somehow I still see people automatically revert their language to elementary standards when they find out a person is autistic. Unless you are told explicitly someone needs simpler speech, this comes off as really insensitive and ignorant.
- Medication isn’t a magic fix for many of us. Some of us can’t take medication. Many people that deal with bipolar disorder have to take a combination of countless medications. Sometimes for an undetermined amount of time they will work and then, randomly, they will stop. Our brain might fight the medications. Sometimes they just don’t know why it won’t work, which is why most anti-depressants and anti-psychotics warn upfront of suicidal tendencies. Some medications make extreme improvements and with others, it’s the extreme opposite. Don’t tell someone to try new medications or that they need to be medicated. Some of us have to live by coping without the help of medication.
- Don’t tell people with mental illnesses they need to “choose to be happy” or that “others have it worse.” It isn’t about choosing to be happy or well adjusted. If it were that easy I would have chosen years ago not to have bipolar. I am sure most people wouldn’t choose to be dripping in sweat in their car, trying to talk themselves into walking into work, fighting their anxieties to do everyday things. I am absolutely positive the huge majority of people would “choose” happiness if it were that easy. Most people I personally know with a mental illness get angry with themselves because they know of other people in the world that “have it worse” than them. Hearing this does not help; if anything, it simply increases the self-loathing many of us cope with.
- Realize that help isn’t always readily available. Whether the doctors aren’t available, or the insurance/payment isn’t viable– help just isn’t there sometimes. Also, mental illnesses are still misunderstood and sufferers are usually shamed. Some people have gotten help and a diagnosis but couldn’t maintain a long-term relationship with their doctor due to funding.
- If someone’s behavior drastically changes, please reach out and help. Providing support without shaming them is important. Don’t tell them how “bad” they’ve been; tell them you’ll help them receive help and the treatment they need. Do not ignore suicidal actions or tendencies.
- Try to understand how hard it is to cope with mental illnesses, disorders, and disabilities. I can’t even describe or try to put into a metaphor how life altering it can be so it’s hard to make someone understand. Just try to keep in mind the science is still new, the medications are new, and help is hard to find. Try not to be insensitive, belittling, or offensive to those suffering from them.
Here are some helpful links:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Veterans Crisis Line
General Help and Information
- Mental Health – From Shame to Seeking Help, Part One: I Am Bipolar (homeschoolersanonymous.wordpress.com)
- Overcoming the stigma of mental illness (stopstigmas.com)
- 10 Things to Know About Mental Illnesses (positively-smitten.com)