When you come out to someone about your depression or anxiety, you may encounter any one of a number of responses. Here are a few examples:
- They give you a hug.
- They say, “Really? I had no idea.”
- They ask if they can help.
- They say something like, “What do you have to be depressed about?”
PEOPLE SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS
People say all kinds of stupid things (forgive me for the judgment). Sometimes they mean it, but most of the time, it’s borne of ignorance and fear.
You will encounter different reactions from your acquaintances, friends, and loved ones when and if you decide to come out to them as living with a mental illness. Unless you’re stuck in a toxic environment with toxic people around you, my guess is that most people will try to be supportive and give you encouragement.
My experience in life is that most people are not assholes. Sure, there are handfuls scattered here and there, but for the most part, people generally tend to be kind.
That’s a very good thing. We need as many positive people in our lives as we can find. Personally, of all the people in my life that I count as family, friends, and acquaintances, I can’t think of one single asshole. I really am surrounded by good people who are loving, kind, and supportive.
Color me lucky, but I also like to think I’m a good judge of character.
As you might expect, the positive people in your life will say supportive things, such as, “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Do you want a hug?” or they send you a simple text saying that they’re thinking of you.
But there are a host of things you – I’m going to say it – should not say to someone who has a mental illness. For one thing, we tend to suffer from low self-esteem and self-confidence, partly due to the stigma involved. We feel things deeply and can internalize anything.
Saying the “wrong” thing is worse than saying nothing.
Here are just a few examples of the kinds of things you just shouldn’t say to people, mental health diagnosis or not:
- “What do you have to be depressed about?” I’ve heard this one more than any other, and it just reeks of ignorance, judgment, and assumptions. This is usually said by someone who thinks that you (magically) have all your shit together. If they only knew, eh?
- “Cheer up!” I’m not even going to say anything about this one.
- “Maybe you should exercise/eat healthier/get a different job/try aromatherapy…” Yeah, because those things are going to make my depression, which is a disease of the brain and often requires professional help to deal with, go away. Why didn’t I think of that?! >:(
- “Try to think happy thoughts.” Hmm. If it were that easy, everyone would be able to do it, no one would be sad or depressed or frustrated or anything else, and the world would be one big, happy family.
- “You’d better not tell anyone else, for your own sake.” This one reeks of stigma and fear.
The people who say such things may be well-meaning, but they are terribly misinformed. Some people might choose to not share their struggles, and that’s fine – although it’s so fucking hard to make progress on your own. In my humble opinion, it’s best to share what burdens you. It gives others an opportunity to be of help, and that’s one thing people like. They like to be able to help. Again, I also think that most people will be accepting and try to be supportive, though they may need to learn more about your illness first. By all means, encourage them to look into it.
One thing I want to emphasize here is that when we are younger and are surrounded by adults, we pick up on the things they say. Just ask any parent of a toddler who just heard the word “fuck”! LOL
If we hear our parents and other caregivers (and authority figures) make negative comments about someone, we learn that that’s okay. And not only does it make it okay to marginalize people and spread prejudicial views, but it also makes it okay to actually believe it, too.
On the other hand, if we heard the adults around us say positive, supportive things to and about people, then that’s what we learn. We grow up with warm fuzzies surrounding us.
After all, we only learn what we’re taught.
As an adult with a couple of mental illnesses, addiction problems, being unemployable due to the effects of ECT treatments 14 years ago, being an out and proud lesbian, and being low-income, I am affected every time I hear someone say something negative/ignorant/mean-spirited about those issues. Every time I hear or see something on TV that I know to be inaccurate at best and stigma-reinforcing at worst, I cringe and my heart breaks a little. And I get angry.
HOW YOU CAN COMBAT MISINFORMATION
Unless you own a big media outlet, it can be hard to spread accurate information on anything but a small-scale basis. But we have to start somewhere, right? I have a few ideas on how to combat misinformation, myths, and (therefore) stigma:
- Come out to people. When a person realizes that she knows someone with mental health issues, it can be a real eye-opener. Maybe they always figured you seemed “fine” and that everything was kosher. If they knew the truth, they would see that seemingly “normal” people can operate on a daily basis despite living with a mental illness.
- Share articles, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. to your social media followers. Since (sadly) 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. – almost 48 million people! – experience a mental illness in any given year, chances are some (if not most) of your friends and followers have been affected by it in some way. On social media especially, I think we tend to put the “best” version of ourselves out there, so it may look like everyone you know does, indeed, have their shit together. But I can assure you – they don’t. Most of us have messy lives filled with stress and the occasional crisis. So even though you may think, “Why would I share this? No one will read it anyway,” I’m willing to bet that some of your peeps will read it. And they will understand. They may not publicly react to it, but they know.
- Speak up. When you hear people spreading misinformation about mental health issues, step up and share the truth. Chances are they’re just repeating something they’ve heard and, hopefully, they’re not being malicious. One thing I hear a lot is the misuse of the word “schizophrenic”. The truth is, schizophrenia is a disease of the brain that can cause its victims to have hallucinations and delusional thoughts and lose touch with reality. There are signs and symptoms and treatments for it, but no cure. But most people still seem to think that schizophrenia means multiple personalities. (What used to be called “Multiple Personality Disorder” is now known in the DSM-5 as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) This myth has persisted for decades, and it won’t stop until people learn the difference. Personally, my feathers get ruffled when I hear people use words like “crazy”, “nuts”, “looney bin”, and other derogatory slang words. Depending on the situation and my relationship with the person, I will either ask them not to use that word or gently correct them by using the neutral, medically-accepted term.
- Educate people. You don’t have to come out if you don’t want to; that’s a very personal decision, one that can be very difficult to navigate. But, out or not (or just an innocent bystander), you have the opportunity every day to educate the people around you. In the example above, for instance, you have the opportunity to point out myths or tell them how harmful use of words such as “cray-cray” are. There will be times in everyday conversation, whether in person or online, where mental health comes up. This is your chance to shine as the educated, open-minded person you are. We have to challenge people on their beliefs sometimes, especially when we know they are simply misinformed.
- Start a blog! 🙂 You can write whatever you want to! But please, let people know when you are stating your opinion so they don’t misinterpret an opinion as a fact. As my wife is fond of saying, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” (Unless your name is Donald Trump or you work for Fox News. Ooh, did I just say that? Sorry, this is supposed to be a politics-free zone!) And it’s a good idea (I think) to back up your facts with links or citations. Maybe not everyone will click through to learn more, but some will. And that counts as education.
So, you see, YOU can have a big impact on what people think and believe, whether you know it or not. If you have a platform, use it to spread the facts. The more people know about mental health and mental illness, the easier it is to break down the walls of stigma. And the less stigma that’s out there means that mental health will be taken more seriously; people will be more likely to talk about their own struggles and maybe even get help; fewer people will attempt (and complete) suicide, and people will be kinder to those of us who struggle.
“Really? I can do all that?”
Thanks for Keepin’ it Real, everyone.
Please share the love! 🙂
A version of this post was previously published on DepressionWarrior and is republished here with permission from the author.
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