How Not to Talk to Mentally Ill Friends

[TW emotional abuse, slurs, mental illness]

“If you just get up and do something, and you’ll feel better.”

“You’ve always got an excuse, eh?”

“You’re overreacting, grow up.”

All of these examples are from things my mother has said to me. With her training and work, my mother was in psychiatric care for 20 years. This is how widespread this thinking is.

Things we need to stop doing as a society: armchair diagnosing people, thinking our ill friends need our help, and instead think about how we can actually support our friends.

I’m going to run through a couple of things people say with what they probably hope are best intentions, and why they’re actually pretty damaging. Obviously these are generalisations, actual wordings will vary.

  1. “Don’t you think you should just try to get out of the house for a bit?” I can guarantee you that when I’m at my worst, the idea of being able to make it out of the house and into the world is top of my list. Sadly, there are a lot of factors that stop that. Any time I make plans with friends I have to consider a whole bunch of things: how many people am I going to be around, is it going to be super busy, how am I going to be the next day?  I have to factor in how much lasting effect a day of enjoyment is going to have on the rest of my week, and if it is going to affect my work, or my writing output. It’s like trying to juggle cats.
  2. If you don’t want to see us, just say.” This is one that is often said after I’ve cancelled the same plans a few times, and the people I’ve been making the plans with feel they’re imposing on me. And they do with this, because it layers on yet more guilt. It’s not that I don’t want to see my friends, it’s that in that particular moment, I can’t.
  3. Oh, we’re going to do X, but you probably won’t want to come.” This leads on from the point before, and kinda hurts. I get that I don’t always make it to things, and you’re tired of asking me only for me to cancel, but talking about plans in front of me makes me feel like I’m wasting your time. When I’m having a bad time with my illnesses anyway, this doesn’t help.
  4. Oh, but Y does this for that illness, why don’t you try it?” I get that you want to help, but chances are if your friend has been diagnosed with something, their doctor has pointed them to all manner of resources in order to find a way for your friend to cope. That’s not to say you can’t help, but sometimes the feeling that friends are hovering nearby ready to jump in puts me on edge, and makes me a little more unlikely to say anything about how I’m feeling.
  5. Oh, I’m a bit depressed/OCD/dyslexic etc. too.” No, no you’re not. Because these are real diagnoses of real illnesses, not the odd day being sad, the odd habit that you can’t move past. I get it, it can be comforting to feel like you belong, but this trivialises illness and might upset your friends. Be careful.

There are loads more I could go into, but you get the general idea. Your friend might be mentally ill, and they may struggle with it, but they don’t want to be treated like anything other than a person. Be kind.

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