If you live with a mental illness, you might be familiar with some of the seemingly “harmless,” but incredibly hurtful things, people often say to those struggling with it.
Sometimes these “harmless” comments come in the form of a pointed question. (Have you taken your meds today?) Sometimes they come with a “solution” via personal anecdote. (Becky used to be depressed all the time, but once she lost weight, her depression totally went away.) Most often, they come from simply misunderstanding mental health struggles. And even though these “harmless” comments may come from a good place, they can often invalidate the struggles of someone living with a mental illness.
When someone with a mental illness opens up about their struggles, oftentimes they aren’t looking for your “solution,” “advice,” opinions, DIY healing guide, etc. — they may just be looking for someone to listen and be there.
We wanted to know what “harmless” comments people with mental illness have heard that actually hurt them, so we asked our mental health community to share one with us and explain what it feels like to hear it.
It’s important to remember what may seem “harmless” to one person may actually be hurtful to another. No matter what anyone says, your feelings are valid, and you deserve support.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
1. “Have you taken your meds today?”
“‘Did you take your medications?’ Yes I did! Just because I’m anxious right now doesn’t mean I didn’t take my medications. It makes me feel like I’m not allowed to have these feelings, as if what I’m experiencing is all fake because I took my medications. People don’t understand that meds don’t erase the problem, they just dull it down for a little bit.” — Shae N.
“When I was a teen, I was on medications for depression and anxiety. Anytime I got upset over anything, my mother would ask me if I’d taken my medications. As if any expression of emotion meant I hadn’t. It made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to experience and express normal human emotions because I have a mental illness.” — Holly P.
2. “Just think of all the people who are worse off than you.”
“‘Think of all the people in the world who have real problems!’ As if I didn’t already feel guilty enough about existing…” — Leiba R.
3. “You have such a good life. What do you have to be depressed about?”
“‘You have such a good life, what’s there to be depressed about?’ Well, aside from the fact that I’m at a genetic disadvantage, my feelings are still valid. I would love to not be depressed, but for many people, including myself, that’s easier said than done.” — Amy W.
4. “Everyone gets stressed sometimes.”
“‘We all get stressed.’ It hurts so much because it makes me feel like my anxiety is invalid. I have severe generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) so when someone tells me to ‘calm down, we all get stressed’ it makes me feel horrible. Yes, everyone gets stressed but what I’m experiencing is not stress, it’s my brain. I’m scared, I can’t shut it off so telling me my feelings are invalid is only going to make it worse.” — Shae N.
5. “Everyone gets sad sometimes.”
“‘Everybody deals with depression, but we choose to be happy and not mopey like you.’ It minimizes my experience and makes me feel like I’m not trying hard enough when in reality, it probably took all my power to wake up the next morning.” — Megan K.
6. “You’re so ‘extra.’”
“Joking that I’m ‘extra,’ a ‘crybaby’ or ‘dramatic.’ I find this hurtful because I have a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD), which for me, and a lot of others, means I have more intense emotions than others. So in a situation where most people would be able to cope appropriately, I can be completely overwhelmed and not know how to deal with it effectively or in a healthy manor. It’s never been something I am proud of so when it’s highlighted or joked about I feel like one of my biggest insecurities is being brought to light.” — Chloe L.
7. “But that happened years ago…”
“‘But that was years ago…’ Yeah it was. And it still affects me on a daily basis. That’s how bad it hurt me. I’m constantly battling negative thoughts from years of bullying in middle school (I’m in my third year of college). I have PTSD. It will always have an effect on me. I still get night terrors and flashbacks and I’m dealing with a never-ending argument in my head between the negative thoughts and my real thoughts. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was. It won’t just magically go away.” — Katelyn G.
8. “You’re too young to be struggling so much.”
“‘You’re so young. What could be so horrible in your life? You haven’t had time to be traumatized.’ I live with PTSD and this makes me feel so invalidated — like my feelings don’t matter or that I’m faking my thoughts. It’s really destructive.” — Layne G.
9. “Just think positive!”
“‘You just have to think positive.’ It’s frustrating and actually pretty insulting because I wish it were that simple. If depression were just a frame of mind or a choice, I sure as hell would not be choosing to feel this way and I don’t think anyone else would either.” — Franca M.
10. “Give it to God.”
“With depression and anxiety, ‘Just pray and give it to God.’ While I believe in God and pray and have faith, when they say that, there is an inference that I’m not doing it right or that I am not good enough. I have literally cried out on my hand and knees before…” —Shelby V.
“‘You need God’ as if I am non-believer or an atheist. Just because I’m going through something, doesn’t mean I don’t believe, pray to Him and ask for His guidance. It just hurt sometimes, when people assume such a thing. [It hurts when] they ignore you when you try to explain to them how difficult it is to live with a mental illness.” — Meon L.
11. “How could you be depressed? Think about your children!”
“‘How could you be depressed? Look at your beautiful son!’ That’s the one that really gets me! I’m single mom with literally no friends. I struggled with depression my whole life. Reminding me that I have the hugest responsibility in the world — when I am already overwhelmed and feeling guilty that I am not being the mother I want to be for him — is not only unhelpful but probably making it worse and making me feel alone!” — Kaitlin L.
12. “You need to face your fears.”
“‘You need to face your fears.’ As if it’s just that simple. My anxiety prevents me from enjoying so many things. I went on this ride at Disney World with my friends and I loved it, except I had a panic attack on it. I enjoyed the ride but my heart and body did not. It’s hard to convince someone you’re enjoying yourself when you’re shaking and hyperventilating and sobbing. I wish I were able to enjoy the simplest things.” — Sheila W.
13. “Stop being so negative.”
“‘Stop being so negative all the time!’ ‘Grow up!’ ‘You’re making excuses’ ‘That’s your fault!’ ‘You did this to yourself’ etc. All of those comments have kept me silent. I can’t talk to anyone because I’ll get ashamed again because of those words.” — Meghan L.
14. “Think about your OCD this way… at least your house will be clean!”
“When my doctor read through my notes from my psych review and saw I had been diagnosed with OCD, he said, ‘Well as far as mental illnesses go that’s probably the best one you could hope for. At least your house will be clean!’ Yes, that’s right. …. my doctor.” — Dani D.
15. “You need to relax.”
“‘Just relax!’ If I could, don’t you think I would? Do you think I would chose to be rocking back and forth while hyperventilating?” — Liz T.
16. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“‘I don’t know what to tell you.’ This is one of the worst ‘harmless’ comments anyone could say to me. It makes me feel like I’m a lost cause and that there is no way I will ever progress and feel better. My ex would say this to me all the time. It made me feel like I was completely alone in my fight with mental illness and that the one person I relied on the most to be there for me was simply giving up on me. It made me feel like a freak.” — Jessa P.
17. “You’re so strong.”
“‘You’re strong. You’ve gotten through things before, you’ll get through this.’ I know they mean well, but what they don’t seem to understand is that it keeps getting harder and harder. I don’t know that I’ll get through this. No one does. It makes me feel like people expect me to be stronger than I am and I’m so exhausted. Some days, I don’t even know if I want to get through it.” — Leah W.
“‘You’ve been through so much. You’re a survivor. You’re strong…’ Ummm no I’m tired and begging for help because I’ve been strong and alone for way too long! Just because I’ve gotten through so much doesn’t mean I’m not falling apart on the inside. You are not being positive, you’re actually dismissing how I feel and my cry for help!” — Elizabeth R.
18. “It’s just the weather getting you down.”
“‘Maybe it’s the weather… I know I feel down when it’s raining/cold out.’ No sorry, my depression doesn’t care if I’m on vacation at a resort sitting in the sun by the pool… it’s there rain or shine.” — Deb T.
19. “Happiness is a choice.”
“’Happiness is a choice.’ My friend means well, but believe me, when I’m in my bipolar depressive episodes, if it was that simple, I would just choose to be happy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. It’s a lot more complicated. For me, it’s med adjustments, forcing myself to exercise when I can’t even get the energy to get out of bed, socializing when I just want to shut everybody out and not sleeping during the day even though all of this is just way, way more energy than I have. For a neurotypical brained person, I can see where happiness is a choice. But my brain can’t always do that, which results in depression.” — Tiffany P.
20. “You seem so much better!”
“‘You seem to be doing so much better!’ While yes it would seem one would be happy to hear those words, it makes me feel like I was so unbearable before, or that I have this reputation to uphold because I’ve done a little better for a little while. Or that I’m seemingly doing better so why haven’t I gone out to get a job, or progress in life further? Or am I even doing better? Are they just saying that? If I stop ‘doing better’ are they going to come back with the same negative comments they used to say followed with, ‘But you were doing so much better, what happened?’ *Sigh.* They have no idea what goes on in the mind of someone struggling with mental illness, and you know, I’m glad they don’t have to know. I would never wish that upon anyone.” — Kila R.
21. “You’re OK.”
“This almost always has me fighting tears. No, I’m not OK. My anxiety and depression are constantly at war and I’m stuck in the middle, unable to breathe under the crushing weight of it all. I’m definitely not OK.” — Angel Q.
22. “I didn’t know they let people like you teach children…”
“I’m a teacher and live with borderline personality disorder and bipolar II. A family member said they were surprised that they let people like me teach children. They didn’t mean it to be hurtful… they were just ignorant. But it cut to the core.” — Danielle B.
23. “You should go for a walk.”
“Go for a walk. Seriously? If I could leave the house or even shower, I might consider it. It hurts because they don’t understand how hard it is to put myself out in public.” — Katie F.
24. “Have you thought about losing weight?”
“I’ve heard this so many times and while I agree that I am overweight, I fail to see how this would help. If I become thinner or more fit will that stop my mental illness? Nope. Nope. Nope.” — Angelique C.
25. “Personally, I would never take medication.”
“‘I would never take medication, I don’t want to be a zombie.’ I don’t want to take medication either, but it levels my playing field so that I’m not a zombie.” — Ashleigh P.
While it’s important to talk about what not to say to someone with mental illness, the conversation doesn’t have to stop there.
If you’re wondering what you should say to someone struggling with mental illness, you can start here.