What to say/not to say to someone suffering a mental health problem

So as this is my second blog, I wanted to address something early on in the process that is quite crucial to many people experiencing depression, anxiety or a number of other mental health issues. It is something that can completely crush you and really can make you feel like your life isn’t worth living – it is stigma. The stigma surrounding mental health has become so widespread that “almost 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems say they face stigma and discrimination as a result.”[1]

My role today is to decrease this stigma by telling you (as friends, family and work colleagues of probably at least 1 person with a mental health issue) my top tips of what to say and what not to say. Read carefully as you could be using these tips on February 4th! (more information below)

  • One Question – “How are you?” This is a great open question to start with as it allows the person to judge whether they would like to talk in-depth, briefly, or not at all about the matter in hand. This is a really good one if you’ve not encountered a situation like this before, and me being someone who has received and dodged quite a few of these questions, I think it is a safe way to go if the person may not feel too comfortable. In any case, reassure them and let them know you’ll be there for them.
  • Time, Place and Space – Allocate some time for talking with them on your own and in a quiet space away from others to make them feel more comfortable. They may be more likely to open up to you this way and you’ll be surprised how much a cup of tea, a smile and a listening ear can do.
  • Text Them – even without being with that person physically, they can still feel involved and loved with just a simple text message. Sometimes when you feel down, you don’t necessarily want to be social, and I’ve always found it really helps if you can have a source of outlet without worrying too much about speaking in person. Also it is less pressure on the receiving end as you can think about what to say before you reply.
  • “Anything I can do?” – This one is for close friends, relatives and partners of the suffering person. You might realise that a mental health problem can affect many aspects of life, and without the help of people around them, said person may struggle to complete everyday tasks and live a normal life. Make it easier for them by asking if there’s anything you can do each time you contact them – buying them a few necessities may be the one thing that keeps them going today; or offer to take them out for some fresh air as they may just want company. (This is named the #smallthings by Time To Change.)

Moving onto some of the things definitely NOT to say:

  • “Snap out of it.” – This one reverberates through my brain and knocks my confidence every time I think about it. I will not discuss why, but this phrase has definitely been felt by me. One cannot simply snap out of a mental health problem – it is impossible. It is like telling someone to defy gravity with their bare hands.
  • “It’s just a phase; you’ll grow out of it.” – This is probably a common phrase heard by teenagers experiencing mental health concerns. Some mental illnesses may be seen by parents as ‘something that happens in the teen years’, however they can turn out to be pretty serious disorders, so never turn a blind eye.
  • “Don’t worry about it; calm down.” – Especially for people suffering with anxiety, these phrases are a big no-no. Their brains are wired to worry and they can’t just stop being anxious. You might as well ask them to walk on water.
  • “I know how you feel; I get like that too.” – Most of the time, you definitely don’t! Unless you have been diagnosed, you can’t really start comparing your feelings to anyone else’s. And if you have been diagnosed too, it may be helpful to talk to each other about it, but remember we are all unique in our experience.
  • “Cheer up!” For them, being happy is a battle, so how can you expect them to suddenly cheer up and feel that everything is dandy with the world when they are suffering feelings that are so numbing and distressing?
  • Also, that joke you started about me being lazy and not doing enough? That made me feel crap. As someone who suffers depression, it is literally a war with my brain to be able to get out of bed in the morning, so if I manage to get anything else done at all that day, it is a miracle.

If you’ve managed to get this far into the blog, listen up! It’s your turn to make a difference. Thursday 4th February 2016 marks this year’s ‘Time To Talk’ day, hosted by Time To Change. It’s your chance to help us end mental health stigma, so sit down with work colleagues, family and friends, have a cuppa and TALK. I will be encouraging this throughout my workplace, hoping that people will get involved knowing how much it means to me. Help end the mental health stigma so sufferers like me won’t have to endure the negative impacts that stigma creates.

More information at www.time-to-change.org.uk/timetotalkday


[1] Statistic from www.time-to-change.org.uk  – a brilliant non-profit organisation that is helping beat the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health.


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