This doesn’t just limit to mental illness, anyone who is suffering from any kind of illness also needs to suffer from societal reaction to their problems.
First of all, I understand that many people truly want to be helpful by giving advice. But let me ask you a question, who gave you the authority on problems the other person is suffering from? Why the first instinct for people who hear that someone is ill is to give unsolicited advice? Suddenly everyone becomes an expert on mental health, nutrition, sports and everything else under the sun.
Let me start by saying that in most cases, unless someone asks for the advice specifically, or you intimately know their problems because it’s someone very close to you, most people do not want advice. They do not share to hear about what they should be doing instead. Being ill is very lonely, and sometimes we just want to say what is bothering us. We also sometimes just want to be honest. It gets really tiring when people ask us about how are we doing and we feel the pressure to lie, to say ‘everything’s fine‘.
‘Everything’s fine‘ is also to go response to not listen to any more of the bullshit that people love to serve as advice.
This is of course just my perspective, but from the conversations I’ve had with other people with similar issues I could gather few things:
Things that are okay:
- Sharing your experience in return. You might even say what helped you, so long as it’s not served as ‘you should do this‘. If a person finds what you said interesting or potentially helpful, they will ask. But most of the time they’ve already heard that a million times, and it’s not your business to know why they do not want to, or cannot do that, or they did and it wasn’t helpful at the end.
- Expressing sympathies. Bonus points if it’s genuine empathy or even just politeness, what most a lot of us hate though is pity.
- If you are uncomfortable about the topic, because you expected to hear something less emotionally heavy, it’s okay to say that you would like to not discuss this topic further. We know more than anyone that people never truly know what is going on with another person, so it should be understood without question.
- Sharing experience of someone you know (provided it’s not breaking the boundaries of said person). Knowing that someone we can picture is going through similar things is sometimes very needed. Ill people judge themselves very harshly for being broken, seeing that it’s not so uncommon makes it less horrible.
- Asking questions. Within reason of course. If we do not want to say something, we will say so. I personally do not think that asking a question should ever be something negative, but I am also a very assertive person and I know my boundaries. So if you know that someone is less assertive, more shy and hiding their discomfort, it’s probably best to let them speak what they want to speak and not push it further. Similarly, if you’re talking to a close friend and you can tell that they want to be asked, go for it.
Things that are NOT okay: Making strong statements about why they’re ill / what should they be doing. You don’t know their case, and you aren’t their doctor. You aren’t a doctor at all in fact, you just play one on TV.
And the worst is when someone has complete lack of awareness, and decides that their problem is the biggest in the world, and if they fixed it then everyone else should too. Recovering from breaking a toe does not give you the right to give advice to people who are paralyzed and on a wheelchair.
People’s experiences differ so vastly it is incomprehensible. We have no way of knowing what the other person is going through. Things may hold the same name, but in reality be different like night and day.
If someone is stressed about exams and procrastinate a lot, feeling down because of lack of love life, feeling jittery before going out in public, they are experiencing anxiety.
You know who also is experiencing anxiety? People with PTSD who got triggered by a traumatic memory, who cannot breathe, pass out from hyperventilating, lose control over their body, lose touch with where they are and what time is it, who are experiencing such terror they do not fall asleep for days.
Both people think they have bad anxiety. But PTSD is far more difficult to manage than breathing exercises and talking to a psychologist to overcome social anxiety and personal expectations.
What’s more, for the person who is ‘just‘ stressed over exams and social anxiety, their state is the worst they can imagine. Simple as that, our brains cannot compute things they did not experience.
Both people need help, and both people deserve for their problems to be treated seriously. But could you imagine saying to the person with PTSD, ‘you can overcome it just by talking to a psychologist and having breathing exercises‘? Sure, talking to someone and breathing exercises are great and surely will also be useful, but alone, without medication and intense therapy, they are nothing. They worked for the lighter case, but it will do nothing to the person with PTSD.
You also cannot tell just how much the PTSD patient is suffering, maybe they’re also depressed, and feel very low about life. Telling them such thing would only make them feel even more alienated, that nobody really understands, that their problems are so far beyond fixable.
I’ve personally had a few situations when I was talking to someone, and just because our problems had the same name, they thought that we experience the same thing.
We do not.
Everybody in the world has at some point felt lonely, helpless, insecure, or not wanting to live and having suicidal ideas. But feeling these things is a part of normal human experience. It’s one thing to experience that, and another to have a sick brain.
You can experience very bad things because of your life situation. But mental illness doesn’t give a damn about your situation. You can be rich, you can be poor, you can be unhappy, and you can be the happiest person in the world. While it can be triggered by bad life events, in general it does not care. A person who suffers from major depressive disorder often has nothing really in life to be depressed about. That’s because it’s an illness, not a feeling.
It’s also one thing to have a broken leg, or severe nerve damage, and another to get hit once by a running dog. Even though the name is ‘pain in the leg‘. Saying ‘just don’t get tackled by a dog‘ to someone with nerve damage is ridiculous. Despite that it is a general good life advice, what matters is the context, and context is what we generally don’t know.
I am not judging there who is the most sick, and who needs more attention. Someone with depression and someone with schizophrenia are also both ill, but their experience is vastly different, and the possible treatment they need is also very different. The medication and the therapy that works for depression will generally not work on someone with schizophrenia. The point is that we do not know, and we will never know. We are not specialists on mental health, we are not each other’s doctors.
I can tell when someone has not experienced what I have. It’s precisely when I hear ‘you should just eat better and talk to a psychologist‘. I am very happy for everyone for whom this was enough. We should aim at limiting suffering in the world. I also do not think I am the sickest person there is, and I feel terribly for all the people suffering, I do not wish harm like this on anyone.
But I also want people to start think more, and be more mindful of what their words can cause. I am at worst annoyed, because it is very annoying to have to explain yourself to someone who sees nothing else in the world besides their problems that were fixed by ‘positive thinking‘ and ‘just being strong‘.
If just being strong and positive thinking fixes the issue, then the issue is not mental illness.
Illness doesn’t work like that. You cant ‘positively think‘ your way out of diabetes or cancer, same as you cannot do it with genuine mental illness. Does positive thinking help? Sure it does. But it will not fix anything on its own.
It’s also very disrespectful to suggest such solution to someone who’s brain is malfunctioning in ways you don’t even know. People in deep depression are often literally incapable of thinking positively. And it is not because of lack of trying, or because they ‘aren’t strong enough‘. You don’t go to a person who’s paralyzed and tell them ‘you would walk if you only changed your attitude‘.
Sick brain is a different thing than being maladjusted or having a personality disorder. Symptoms of my illness are named the same way as a lot of symptoms of one of the personality disorders, but the actual experience of people with said illness and said personality disorder are very different. Giving each other advice is often like the deaf giving advice to the blind. Sure, there are some generic things everyone could use, but when you go into details it is pointless and most unhelpful.
At best you will encounter a person like me, who is mildly annoyed at unhelpful advice. At worst you can say something very stupid and very non-thought through to someone in a state where it can bring them a lot of harm. And you will never know which person is which.
I wish for better education about mental health and health in general in schools. We really have a very ignorant society that barely is leaving the era of ‘going to a psychologist means you’re a freak‘. Our society is also so self-centered and inconsiderate it’s not really a surprise that this happens, and we are so ignorant of the struggles that are different, or bigger than our own. Most people want to look away when they see suffering, but it means they are completely not used to it, and they don’t know how to deal with it.
I hope this is some food for thought, and next time you have the occasion you have a chance to be more mindful about what you’re saying. Just being compassionate and non-judgmental can make someone’s day so much you cannot even imagine.
And it costs nothing to say nothing sometimes.