Dealing with Insensitive Comments About Mental Illness
We are supposed to be living in a more enlightened world that accepts all kinds of people, but the truth is that we are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to mental illness. As someone with a loved one who has a serious mental illness, I am often appalled at the insensitive remarks people make. People who have a mental illness hear a lot of crass comments as well.
If my loved one had a physical illness such as cancer, I would share it with others who could sympathize and offer support. Because my loved one is mentally ill, I can only share that with a few trusted friends. I am not ashamed of my loved one’s condition, but I fear that the person will be stigmatized and treated badly by others if her condition was known.
Why people make inappropriate comments
There are many reasons why people make stupid comments. Insensitive remarks are often made in ignorance. When people make remarks, they are not deliberately trying to be hurtful. The truth is that most people speak without thinking about what comes out of their mouths.
Other people seem to be in denial that mental illness exists and that it cannot happen to someone that they know. Mental illness only hits people from Planet X in their minds, so "nutty" people are can be hit with verbal pot shots. Some people feel that they are in a special category way above “crazy people,” and look down their noses at others as weak and unwilling to pull themselves out of their state.
Sometimes, people mask their comments as teasing, but the words are inappropriate just the same. Hurtful remarks can really damage the self-esteem of mentally ill people. It hurts their loved ones as well.
Here are some examples of hurtful remarks about mentally ill people that are often based on mental health myths.
“It’s all in their heads.”
“Why can’t they work for a living?”
“They need to change their attitudes.”
“Don’t they want to get better?”
“They should get busy and distract themselves.”
“They have everything they need to get better.”
“They should stop foccusing on bad things, and just start living.”
“Everybody struggles with these things sometimes. Snap out of it.”
Many ignorant comments about mental illness are based on myths and misconceptions about this condition.
Myths about Mental Illness
Truths about mental illness
Not many people have mental illness
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of Americans have a mental illness.
Children don't have mental health problems
Warning signs of mental illness may show up in very young children. Approximately 25 percent of all mental health disorders in children have signs that appear before children turn 14 years old, and 75 percent of mental health disorders begin before people are age 24.
People with mental illness are unpredictable and violent
Only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to people with a serious mental illness. Most mentally ill people are no more violent than anyone else.
Mentally ill people can't handle working
Employers report that employees with mental illness are motivated, on time, punctual, have good attendance, and are as productive as other employees.
Mental health problems are caused by character flaws or personality weakness
Some people believe that mentally ill people can "snap out of it" if they make an effort. In fact, mental illness has nothing to do with weakness or laziness. It occurs through many factors which are beyond the person’s control such as trauma and family history.
People with mental health problems have no hope of recovery
Medication and psychiatric help can dramatically improve the quality of life for people with mental illness.
Self-help and therapy is a waste of time
Each individual with mental illness has different needs, but most benefit from medication, therapy, and support from family and friends.
Our response to insensitive remarks
Some people are just thoughtless and say stupid things off the top of their heads. Others are bullies who thrive on putting other people down. They are unlikely to listen to any thing we say.
We need to gauge what we are going to say in response to insensitive remarks. Would they accept me if I address this? How would these people feel about being corrected? Would they be willing to be educated about mental illness?
Ignore the comment: Some insensitive individuals are not worth a response. For whatever reason, they are not opening to someone correcting their opinions. If we tried, they would just become defensive or hostile, or walk away from us.
Acknowledge the comment and correct it: We can indicate that we listened to the person’s comment without becoming upset. That way, the person does not feel like we are attacking them when we respond. We can then gently correcting them.
Educate the person about mental illness
Many people make inappropriate because they believe in mental illness myths or are just plain ignorant. The comment can become an opportunity to educate the person.
For example, many people think that people are mentally ill because they are lazy and unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They need to know that mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw.
Some people are reluctant to change but are open to education. I once corrected a fellow writer who wanted to use the term schizophrenic to describe the weather in a story. This use of the word shows a common misconception about schizophrenia – that the condition is multiple personality disorder. In actuality, people who are schizophrenic have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and struggle with psychotic episodes. When I explain this to him, he was reluctant to give up what he felt described the dual natural of autumn winds, but agreed to change to a more accurate descriptor.
Here are some tips for effective education:
- Watch your tone and demeanor: This education should not be preachy or be done in a condescending way.
- Add personal story: This can ease tension and educate in a non-threatening way.
- It may help to try to relate to them by saying something like, You know, I used to think the same thing about bipolar disorder, but I have learned that ...”
- Do not criticize the person by telling them what they said was ignorant or stupid - the person will just shut down and will not listen.
CDC Mental Illness Surveillance, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Things not to say to someone with mental illness, PschCentral, Margarita Tartakovsy
How to Respond to Insensitive Remarks about Mental Illness, Psych Central
Myths and Facts, MentalHealth.gov
© 2013 Carola Finch