Do Not Dismiss Someone's Mental Illness

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Martin Dimitrov / iStock

“Oh, you’ll be fine,” they say, patting you on the shoulder. “This too will pass.”

You nod solemnly, not meeting their eye, because you are polite and that’s what polite people do. But you are not going to be fine. You want to kill yourself and probably think everyone around you would be better off if you did. You may be self-harming.

Every day is a struggle to get out of bed, let alone get dressed, go to work, be what people might dub a productive member of society — a person who sees friends, who parents their children well, who does laundry, and keeps a clean house. A pat “you’ll be fine” and a “this too shall pass” platitude minimizes your suffering. It minimizes your deep psychic pain. It ignores the fact that mental illness is as real as physical illness, and when we respond to it with dismissal and minimization, it’s the same as a coach telling a kid with a broken leg to “walk it off.”

Like the kid with a broken leg, you literally can’t walk it off.

People love to tell you that “it’s not that bad.” Husbands say it to wives, educated people to their peers, women to their best friends. They say it because they want everything to be “not that bad,” and from their non-anxious, non-depressed, non-bipolar perspective, it isn’t that bad. The world doesn’t feel like it’s crashing down, like it’s better off without them, like everything goes wrong all the time. It doesn’t feel like they have to constantly prepare for the worst-case scenario. To them, people are mostly good, and the world is mostly happy, and things go mostly right. They want you to understand this.

It all seems so simple to those who are not suffering.

But here is what we hear instead of “it’s not that bad”: You are wrong. Not only are your thoughts wrong, but those feelings that torment you are wrong too. You feel even more worthless because of your wrongness. Moreover, if you could just think hard enough and realize stuff “isn’t that bad,” then you could be okay. But you can’t think your way out of it, so you are even more worthless than you could possibly realize, and this mental illness thing is ultimately your fault. Because if you’d just think, you’d realize it’s not that bad as it feels, that life isn’t a misty haze of misery, or a sharp knife twisting in your guts, or a constant occasion of terror.

Except mental illness is a disease. No one tells you to think your way out of diabetes. No one says your pancreas’s inability to synthesize insulin is “not that bad.”

And when people find out that you have a mental illness, some of them want to tell you how drugs are bad. That they turn you into a different person and support Big Pharma and aren’t adequately tested and you should never take them ever. No matter that you have an excellent board-certified psychiatrist, and these drugs she prescribed are literally saving your life. “Have you tried getting outside more?” these people ask. “You know, exercise has a ton of benefits.” Except it’s really hard to get outside, let alone exercise, when you’re so sad you can barely make it from the bed to the couch.

We’d never tell someone to throw away their chemo drugs (okay, some people would, but that’s a fringe of a fringe that appalls the general public, and we don’t need to go that far off the rails). We should show the same consideration for psychiatric medication — and realize its legitimate life-saving potential.

One of the worst offenders? “Everyone has bad days.” People like to say tell you this. This insinuates that your feelings are a day-long, random blip of misery that will go away when the sun goes down. It says that we need to suck it up and deal like a grown up, because “everyone” has days like this, and they suck it up and deal and move on.

Except they don’t have a debilitating illness that can last for months or years and involves wanting to drive your car off a bridge. Or being so frightened of social contact you can barely leave the house. Or cycling rapidly between happiness and abject despair. No, everyone does not have days like these, and if they do, they require psychiatric intervention (like me).

“You just need to think positively,” however, might be the absolute worst line of them all. It tells you that you just need to think your way out of it. People with depression can think their way out of the disease about as well as people with appendicitis or a really bad migraine. They can’t concentrate hard enough and fix their own bodies, so why expect someone with a mental illness to?

Moreover, “you just need to think positively” victim-blames the mentally ill. If you just tried enough to change your thinking, and wanted badly enough to get out of that depressive rut, you’d be all fixed!

Except it doesn’t work that way. You can’t think positively when your brain is making chemicals, or not making chemicals, that render positive thinking all but impossible. Oh, you can get some help in that direction — it’s called cognitive behavioral therapy, and it works. But it doesn’t work for everyone in isolation, and some people need medication in conjunction with it. So unless someone’s a therapist teaching someone how to enact specific thought processes, they best not tell you to “think positively.” They’re just minimizing your illness and acting like a jerk.

Because that’s what all these phrases do: They minimize and dismiss the very real, very painful suffering people with mental illness undergo on a daily basis. And while these people may mean well, they instead just add to the pain. Their words, meant to be comforting, really say that your pain doesn’t matter, that it’s your fault, and that you should just fucking try harder.

It’s cruel. It’s unfair. But until we learn that mental illness is as real as physical illness, and deserves the same sympathy and treatment, it’ll keep happening. Because until someone understands the depths of a person with depression’s suffering, or the terror of someone with an anxiety disorder, and gets that these diseases don’t just go away, but are caused by a complex interaction of brain chemicals that generally requires medication for treatment, this dismissal and minimization will keep happening — even from those we love. They mean well, they truly do. But their delivery sucks, and they need to work on it ASAFP.

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