Lifeline Connections

5 Ways to Respond to Insensitive Comments About Mental Illness

Having a mental illness is sometimes debilitating, embarrassing, and misunderstood. Many people want to say things like, “you’ll get over it” or “maybe you just need a hobby.”  While these comments might have good intentions, they can also be hurtful or insensitive in the least. In all honesty, some people just don’t understand. When I was a senior in high school, I told a friend of mine that I was going to start seeing a counselor. He responded in a joking way, “oh, I’ll be your counselor! Tell me your problems and I’ll analyze them.” and sat goofily as if he were about to psychoanalyze me. I am still not sure if he thought that I was being ironic when I said that, or serious and he just felt uncomfortable with that information. Either way, I was hurt and cut off that friendship for a while. I just didn’t feel like I could trust him with the difficult things going on my life. We were young, and I know that he didn’t mean to hurt me, but it helped me become more keenly aware of what others are going through and how I can appropriately respond.

If you or a friend are suffering from a mental illness, and you hear one of these comments, here are 5 ways that you can respond:

Talk about your experience. If you’re the one that is dealing with the mental illness, I have found that it helps to just be open about it, even at the expense of further hurtful comments (which has never actually happened, by the way). Almost every time I do talk about it, the person seems to gain a greater understanding and often even apologizes for their insensitivity or ignorance. I point out that although I have hobbies, healthy relationships, and I do my best to take care of myself, I still have bouts of anxiety that can feel suffocating or days where I feel like the most I can do that day is keep my kids alive and order pizza (online, because even calling someone on the phone seems overwhelming). I consider my depression and anxiety to be very mild and manageable compared to some others. I think that when you can “undefensively” be open about it, people are more likely to ask you questions and try to understand better.

Offer education. Whether it’s you or a friend of yours that has been the recipient of an insensitive comment, it helps to be informational about the subject. Let them know that mental illness have always been around, but our awareness of them hasn’t. Give them statistics (if you have any, don’t make them up) or even just point out that from your experience, there are many people that suffer from things that just aren’t talked about. You can mention that like a physical disease, a mental disease can be just as difficult to overcome, but with intervention and patience, that it can be managed.

Ignore. Sometimes, just ignoring a comment is better than the alternative. This may be depending on the person and the context. Some people just say things without thinking, but never meant to hurt anyone. And some people say things to get a reaction out of you. Retorting back or getting defensive might actually reward that comment, therefore ignoring it may be the best option. If it was a loved one or a family member that made the comment, you can also wait until there isn’t anyone around to remind them to be more sensitive when talking to you or the person involved about it.

Offer understanding. It can be uncomfortable at the least, and very hurtful at the worst of these types of comments. But, if you want to have a very real conversation with someone about it, one of the first things you can recognize is that they might just not know or understand the gravity of what they are saying. Some people sincerely think they are being helpful when they say, “buck up little camper” but don’t see all of the pain that is going on underneath that person. You can say something like, “I know it does seem kind of like there are things that so-and-so should just do differently, but we really can’t fully understand what it’s like unless we have experienced it, too.” Or “you know, I used to suggest to people that they should just stay busy, too, but ever since I had my baby and developed postpartum depression, I realized that it’s not as easy as it looks.” When you can validate their thinking, particularly if you can tell it has good intentions, then they are more likely to be open to your point of view.

Respond to the person who received the comment, only. I have done this before with others. I had just met a woman who joined our church women’s group. She was talking about her struggle to quit smoking and another woman said, “but you’re not drinking anymore, right?” as if to say that this is something this new woman should be able to easily do. I could see the embarrassment on the new woman’s face, and I simply ignored the person who said it and responded to the woman, “we are all learning how to do something, just know that you don’t have to feel ashamed about anything here.” We went on to discuss how beneficial this women’s group is with the consistent support and friendliness it offers.

All in all, one of the best ways to spread appropriate awareness about mental illness is to be an open resource for information without being defensive about it. Attacking a person for their ignorance is not a healthy way to discuss it, and it doesn’t seem to make a positive impact. It will take some time for society to be more open, more loving, more everything it should be, but with time, patience, and information I believe that it can get to that point.

Lifeline Connections is the type of place where there is no one to impress, only those who actually care about your journey to a clean and life free of dependency. If you or a loved one is noticing that some outside help will be necessary, check out the rest of this site and you’ll see that we offer a variety of specialities for outpatient and inpatient care. We tailor this care to the needs of the patient, and we provide the necessary life skills to move ahead after recovery. Please feel free to email or call us anytime at or 360-397-8246 ext 7465.

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