Mental Illness and Platitudes: like oil and water

helpinghand

A hand up is difficult to give someone with mental health issues.  In the end, it is appreciated.

It’s easy for someone with mental illness to feel forgotten, abandoned or tossed aside.  Such conditions as borderline, bipolar, cyclothymia and OCD can be a complete drain on friends, family and loved ones, causing them to peel away.  The problem comes when someone tries to reach out for help and all they are offered are what amount to platitudes; quotes and statements which sound like something out of pop-psychological television program, or a glossy picture book which grace the table of one trying to appear erudite on mental health.  It is a case of the supposed cure being far worse than the disease itself.

 

The reality for someone who is either suffering in silence, or has come forward to seek help and is in the deep mines of their own minds, is that such statements and quotations feel like salt being rubbed deep into a wound.  The intention of such platitudes may be good, but they often come across as insensitive, hollow, and “one size fits all.”  With that in mind, here are five platitudes which many who are dealing which such issues often hear, why these are so hated, and how to reframe them into something far more effective and positive.

If you are in distress, please call 911 immediately if you are considering self-harm.  If you feel unbalanced or unable to successfully govern your emotions, please check out the MentalHealth.gov for links for immediate help.

Platitude:  “Be grateful.”

Why people with mental illness hate this phrase:  It smacks of hypocrisy.  It’s easy to say “be grateful” when someone else is hurting and you are enjoying your life.  After all, people who are doing “well” are perceived by those who aren’t as insulated from life’s ups and down, whether or not it’s true.  Like it or not, that is the perception and being told we need to be grateful for our blessings is like telling someone who just put their dog to sleep “at least you can go out and get another.”

Good reframe:  Rather than telling someone to be grateful, spent a moment talking to them about their hobbies and interesting.  Sometimes they will be reminded they are a great cook, or a wonderful writer, or make beautiful art.  They may remember they have a knack for always catching the biggest fish, or looking super hot in a cocktail gown.  Whatever it is, find that thing and expand the conversation, then remind them “hey, you know this is something I wish I could do.  I envy you.”  Even though you really don’t envy them, the fact remains they know they can do something somebody else can’t is a huge confidence boost.  Take that and build on it.

Platitude:  “That’s not your journey,” or “you can’t compare yourself to another.”

Why people with mental illness hate this phrase:  We live in a society in which comparison is a part of life.  For many with mental illness, obsession or seeing certain (not all) things in absolute terms is a part of life.  Whether others want to believe it or not, we compare ourselves to each other all the time in our daily lives.  Hiring practices, impressions of attractiveness, competing for mates all bring comparisons into play.  It’s no wonder people with mental illness compare their lives to those of others all the time.

Good reframe:  When your friend starts telling you how great your life is compared to theirs, ask them a question about something interesting that happened, even if it was a few months back.  It could be something as interesting as meeting someone famous, or getting to go somewhere you’ve never been but, because of their life, they can go.  Tell them how you wish you had gotten a chance to do that.  Ask them what it was like.  Be gentle, be kind, and be genuine.  A person with mental illness, believe it or not, can almost always seen through a veneer.  Show you are really interested.

Platitude:  “You really need to stop living in the past.”

Why people with mental illness hate this phrase:  There are those people out there we just want to throat punch – folks who either can easily separate the past from the present.  These are the folks who can choose to forget stuff they did that we regret and beat ourselves up over the same.  The fact is, one of most common triggers for mental illness episodes are thoughts of yesterday.

Good reframe:  This requires being able to identify the trigger in its early stages.  Once the road down memory lane is being traveled, it’s difficult to stop.  Now, if you have just turned onto it, you can make a statement of “you know, that was so long ago and we are both so different now.  Why don’t do…” and suggest a fun activity, preferably physical, for you to do together.  The endorphin release combined with mindfulness, helps the brain re-calibrate itself.

Platitude:  “You really need to seek help.”

Why people with mental illness hate this phrase:  chances are, we’ve already begun seeking help, or are waiting for our insurance to kick in, or have to see someone with a waiting list.  “Seeking help” is often code for “Take a pill” or “talk to a therapist and everything will be better.”  Most people do not understand that mental illness doesn’t cure with a simple pill – it is an overarching healing approach which takes months, sometimes years, and on occasion, entire lifetimes to achieve.

Good reframe:  Express that you’re concerned over them not taking care of themselves or not being themselves.  Don’t be judgmental, but notice the little things, like their appearance or lack of energy.  Point out that counseling is not a death sentence or a social stigma, and that having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but that you are willing to face it and admit it is true strength.  Be careful how you word this, though, because it can also sound like a stupid platitude.

Platitude:  “You need to love yourself first.”

Why people with mental illness hate this phrase:  Thankfully, this particular phrase is starting to experience a bit of a backlash.  It’s a statement which suggests that when one does not love themselves, one is unlovable, and that’s just a falsehood.  It is possible to love someone who does not love themselves, but it takes incredible patience to help that person because they need to choose to love themselves as well to avoid harming those who care about them.  This can create a toxic relationship in which both are drained and left resentful of each other.  With professional help, many can get to the point where they can love in a healthy way, even if they don’t love themselves as others believe they should.

Good reframe:   Rather than saying this, simply be a friend and spend time with them.  Let them know they are loved and appreciated.  Some folks never get it and really do need professional help, while others are just stuck in a rut and need reassurance.  It all depends.

Our experiences are what guide us in our daily lives and, contrary to popular perception, there is no one person on earth who truly has it “all together.”  We all have our good days, our bad days, our time in the sun and, eventually, our time in the darkness.  For every sunset there is a sunrise, and yes there is a season for every person, no matter how brief.  Awareness and mindfulness are essential tools, not empty platitudes, for anyone with mental illness who wants to get better and recover.  Focusing on the now and having friends there to help are more valuable than any material asset on this planet.

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