What to Do When You Say the Wrong Thing to Someone with Mental Illness

By Jess Carpenter | Aug. 29, 2019


It can be hard to know the correct way to talk to someone about their mental illness. Especially because saying the wrong thing can cause a lot of hurt and damage to a person. Everyone makes mistakes, and even the best of us slip up sometimes. When you do make a mistake by saying something insensitive, it’s important to recognize it and then educate yourself to limit the mistakes you make in the future.
 
People with a mental illness are regular people. Often, you won’t be able to tell who has a mental illness and who doesn’t. So, it’s important to learn the correct terminology and what can be offensive. No one is perfect, but what you say matters.  You can help create a healthy environment for someone with mental illness by being informed.

Educate Yourself

Some words that you think may be completely harmless can cause a wave of emotion in others. Words like “crazy” or “bipolar” may be regular terms that you used to describe a behavior, but a mental illness is not a descriptor, it’s a medical definition. Take harmful words out of your vocabulary and recognize that there’s a better word to describe what you’re experiencing. For example, if someone is bouncing back between multiple decisions, they are not bipolar, they are indecisive.
 
Also, it’s important to remember that people with a mental illness are, first and foremost, people. Don’t say, “She is bipolar,” but instead say, “She has bipolar disorder.” Regardless of their formal diagnosis, it’s something they have rather than something they are. Here are a few common phrases that can be hurtful to those with a mental illness:

  • They’re psychotic (used to describe someone mad or angry)

  • They’re bipolar (used to describe someone who changes their mind often)

  • You’re crazy (used as a descriptor)

  • She’s suffering from depression (used to describe someone diagnosed with depression)

  • Did you forget to take your happy pills? (used to describe the lack of prescription medication, often poking fun at anxiety and/or depression medication)

Apologize

If you make a mistake and catch yourself in the moment, apologize for the hurtful thing that you’ve said. Acknowledging that you’ve made a mistake is important in helping the offended party recognize it wasn’t said intentionally. 
 
If you don’t catch yourself saying something hurtful and someone else does, don’t get defensive. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone else get defensive when they are in the wrong. Take it as a chance to apologize. Sometimes, the offended party will tell you the correct terms to use, which can be a helpful reminder. 

Walk Your Talk

Don’t purposefully use hurtful terms. In addition to that, educate someone else on what is and what isn’t appropriate to say to someone who has mental illness. By spreading the information you learn, you could prevent harm and help someone’s recovery process.
 
There will always be people who have mental illness that don’t open up about it. Many people have a mental illness and will never talk about it with their colleagues or close friends. With that in mind, it’s important to recognize that anyone you talk to could have one. 
 
When you use hurtful terms and phrases, it can impact your relationships, but also can hurt someone who may be struggling. Those who have mental illness need an ally, and educating yourself on what not to say is the first step in being one.
 
 
Jess Carpenter writes what she loves in a city that she loves. She has a B.S. in psychology and an M.S. in health from the University of Utah. She writes about topics passionate to her while chasing around two toddlers.

 


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