Over the last few months, one of the biggest ideas I have wanted to encourage is talking openly about mental health. It can be scary or uncomfortable at first, but with time I’ve found it’s possible to become very comfortable talking about mental health, even in public. Nonetheless, sometimes it can be hard to know what to say when someone talks to you about mental health or even a mental illness. Starting a conversation is a great first step but some people might worry about saying the right thing, and may even avoid talking about it so they don’t accidentally say the wrong thing.
I wanted to put together a list of a few things to avoid saying and a few great things to say. Although my experience is mainly with OCD, a lot of the phrases on these lists can be generalized to any mental health problem, so I hope they are helpful.
I really don’t want anyone to feel bad if have said what’s on the “don’t say” list because any conversation about mental health is better than none and I’ve definitely said the wrong thing at times myself too. I’m just hoping putting this out there will help future conversations be as comfortable and helpful as possible. Also there are plenty of lists out there already of things not to say so I wanted to focus more on what you should say.
Please DO say:
1. I’m glad you told me.
Opening up about a mental health problem can be very scary. We aren’t always sure how people will react. Responding with something like this lets the person know they can feel comfortable talking to you and they won’t feel judged or as scared if they ever need to talk again. It also opens up opportunities for a reciprocal conversation where you can talk to your friend in return about serious topics. Warm statements like this foster conversations where both involved feel comfortable talking about their mental health.
2. I’m so sorry to hear that. That must be hard.
Since mental illnesses aren’t as visible as physical illnesses they can be hard to understand and it can be hard to see the pain they cause. A kind remark like this conveys that you understand how real and serious mental illnesses are, and shows you are taking the conversation seriously.
3. This won’t change how I see you. It won’t change our relationship.
One of the main reasons opening up about having a mental health problem can be scary is that you may fear it will change how your friends or family members perceive you. You don’t want to change from being their fun friend to being seen as the weirdo that goes to therapy. This can be one of the most important things someone can say in this type of situation. It’s comforting to know those that love you still see you as the same person you were before you told them about your mental health problem. If anything, I think these types of conversations make relationships stronger, not weaker.
4. I’m here if you want to talk.
Even if they never come to you to talk when they’re having a rough patch it’s still wonderful to hear others care and want to help. I believe a strong support network of family, friends, others with the same illness is very important to fighting back and getting better.
5. How can I help?
Now I must clarify, in the case of OCD or anxiety you have to be careful with this one. Do not, and I really cannot emphasize this enough, DO NOT let this turn into enabling. It is very easy for loved ones to get involved in compulsions and rituals. It’s hard to watch the person suffer and this can seem like a way to help. As tough as it is to watch the person with OCD struggle with anxiety rather than helping them with compulsions, this is an absolute must. Helping with compulsions will only make the OCD worse, whereas encouraging them to sit with their anxiety instead is the best option for their getting better in the long-run.
There are however many other great and beneficial ways to help!
For example: getting together for coffee, taking a walk, taking a yoga class together, giving them a phone call, being a shoulder to cry on (a relationship that goes in both directions)
With OCD and anxiety, some people may even enjoy you being there while they do exposures or even doing exposures with them. This may not be for everyone but I actually like doing exposures with others around. Not only does it make me feel braver and supported but I also feel proud when I can “show off” facing a fear.
6. Ask questions if you have them!
This similarly may not be for everyone but for a lot of people this is a great filler in a conversation about mental health. Personally, I’m very comfortable answering questions about my OCD and really enjoy when others ask questions. It shows they are interested in understanding something that has a huge impact on my everyday life.
Please don’t say:
1. Oh, that’s all? or That’s not a big deal.
Although you can’t always see it, I promise mental illnesses are a big deal. That’s why they are called illnesses and why the D in OCD stands for disorder. They have a massive impact on the person’s life.
The other reason I don’t really like this response is because no, typically that’s not all. Mental health conditions are very often comorbid with each other. For example, OCD is often comorbid with anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and Tourette syndrome, among others. For me OCD comes bundled along with a variation of trichotillomania, a severe phobia of blood, and occasional episodes of depression.
2. Me too! I have this one quirk…
…unless of course you do actually have OCD or anxiety as well.
Otherwise, though not the worst thing you can say, this is a good one to avoid. With this phrase I know there are probably good intentions behind it. I assume the person is trying to find a way to relate to having OCD so we feel less weird or alone. Nonetheless, without meaning to it can come across as if you are trivializing what having actual OCD is like. It is impossible to fully relate to OCD unless you actually have it or have had and overcame it.
On the flip-side if someone says this and includes “I know this is nothing compared to actual OCD but…” I don’t mind it and actually appreciate that they have shared this (although not everyone may like this.) For me if they are aware it doesn’t compare to actual OCD but are trying to understand and relate to the condition it can be really helpful for me to explain what OCD is like. I can follow-up with “Yes, that’s kind of what it sounds like or what the urges to do these behaviors are like but with real OCD you have many, many different fears (try having 15!), very stressful rituals to go with all of them, and they take up a lot of time out of the day (at least an hour every day!)”
I hope this was helpful to anyone wondering what they should say in their next conversation about mental health. If anyone else has other phrases they love hearing, definitely add them in a comment!
Keep having conversations about mental health because although mental health is a very big deal, talking about it openly shouldn’t be!