It can be intimidating sharing with someone about living with mental illness. People’s reactions can be hurtful. Oddly enough, sometimes the most hurtful comments come from people who are actually trying to be kind. These well-meaning people think they are being helpful when they offer advice. But really that is the opposite of what we need. These comments often start with the seemingly harmless phrase ‘you should try…’ This is usually followed up by something they read on Buzzfeed or whatever the hot trend is right now. Yoga, colouring, exercise, walking, meditation, treat yo self, massage, you name it. I’ve even been told that I should try to smile more, keep my head up and stay positive. (Cheers, mate. I never thought of that).
There are three elements that really stand out to me about these ‘you should try’ statements.
1. Subtle Judgement: The word ‘should’ suggests an air of judgement that we must not be looking after ourselves properly if we have a mental illness.
2. Assumption: The assumption is that you haven’t tried these strategies before. Like honestly, you think I’ve never tried to exercise before?
3. Implied expertise: The fact that this person is sharing knowledge with you illustrates a power dynamic that people with mental illnesses couldn’t possibly have insight or expertise about their own condition. The well-meaning person obviously knows better than the person with the mental illness.
As a result, how do these ‘you should try’ statements make me feel? They make me mad. They hurt. They make me feel unheard.
In reflection on this topic I thought of some more helpful ways well-wishers can respond when someone opens up about their mental illness. Ironically enough, I’m giving you my own ‘you should try’s’
1. Thank them: ‘Wow, that’s pretty full on. Thank you for sharing with me. I appreciate that that must be tough’.
2. Ask them what strategies they have in place: ‘What strategies do you use to cope with your mental illness, if you don’t mind my asking?’
3. Ask them about their support network: ‘What’s your support network look like? Whose the most important person in helping you stay well?’
4. Ask about warning signs: ‘Are there any things I should look out for to know you need help? If you’re comfortable with that, obviously.’
5. And lastly, ask them how you can help: ‘I’m really touched you shared all that with me. Please let me know ways I can support you when you’re not feeling well.’
Instead of launching immediately into telling a person with a mental illness how you think they should handle it, it is important to talk to them and find out their current strategies and survival tools. This is empowering for the person with the mental illness and makes them feel like you care and value their expertise on their own condition. You might even feel you come out of the conversation having learned something. And if not, your relationship with the person will definitely be stronger for it.