How you talk about mental health matters
TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and the like are full of people talking about mental health – both those who are experiencing mental-health challenges and experts with letters after their names. This increased awareness is great for changing the conversation around mental health, being more open about these common issues and helping us learn how to be happier, but when these conversations are done wrong, they can hurt the very people they are meant to help.
“Language, regardless of whether it’s used on social media or in person, is power,” says belonging and leadership expert Ritu Bhasin. “There is an epidemic of stigma around mental illness, and the way we speak about it has the power to either reinforce that or break it.”
Even if you’re trying to discuss mental health with care and you would never use flat-out offensive terms, navigating this topic can still be difficult. In fact, some of the “polite” things you may be saying are not as polite as you think they are. So how do you avoid this minefield? We asked experts and real-life people with mental-health challenges to share what they wish you wouldn’t say – and what to say instead.
Saying that someone struggles with a mental-health issue
“The word struggling carries a very negative connotation, and the truth is, you don’t actually know what someone else’s journey with their mental health is like,” says Bhasin. Sometimes mental health can feel like a struggle, but don’t assume that – let them tell you how they are feeling, and then use the word or words they choose during your talk.
Amy Alexander, a 31-year-old who has lived experience with clinical depression, agrees: “Struggling makes it sound like it’s something I can overcome or fight against, but in reality, depression is just something I live with. Some days it’s better, some days it’s not, but if you sincerely ask, I will tell you.”
Say this instead: “My sister has lived experience with depression.” Or if you’re talking to someone with issues of their own, try: “Are you experiencing depression right now?” This change acknowledges the wide range of experiences people have with mental-health challenges, says Bhasin.
Offering unsolicited advice
We know, you’re trying to be helpful, particularly if you’ve dealt with similar issues. But unless someone has specifically asked you for advice, your ‘helpful tips’ are more likely to make them feel frustrated or like you aren’t really hearing them. And feeling heard is one of the things people with mental-health challenges crave the most, says psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Dr Dave Rabin.
“If learning how to meditate or do yoga was going to cure my crippling anxiety, don’t you think I’d have done it by now?” asks Mark Jenkins, a 26-year-old who has been diagnosed with social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I get that people mean well, but they’re not going to cure me by telling me to drink more water or take vitamin D. Trust that I have heard it all.”
Say this instead: “Your anxiety sounds really tough. What can I do to support you right now?” This, however, should be said within the context of a larger conversation. The key is to ask how they are feeling and how you can best support them, and then listen to their answer, says Dr Rabin. If they mention they’d like suggestions, then you can bring it up, but be prepared that they may simply want you to listen, not try to solve their problems.
If you do have personal experience with the same issues, you can mention what worked for you in the context of your own journey, adds Bhasin. For instance, “Are you open to hearing about something that helped me? I also live with social anxiety, and I’ve found guided meditations to be helpful in calming down from a panic attack. What have you found that helps you?”