Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.
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 are diagnosed with mental illness also hear a lot of crass comments.
If my loved one broke her leg or 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 poorly treated by others if her condition was known.
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 anything we say. Some people feel 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. Putting down others makes them feel better about themselves and reassures them that they are OK.
People sometimes mask their comments as teasing, but the words and labels are inappropriate just the same. Hurtful remarks can damage the self-esteem of mentally ill people. It hurts their loved ones as well. Their words often reflect myths about mental illness, such as those below.
Myths About Mental Illness
Myth: Mental illness Does not exist in people they Know
Other people seem to deny that mental illness exists and cannot happen to someone they know. Mental illness only hits people from Planet X in their minds, so "nutty" people can be hit with verbal potshots.
Since mental health problems are not real, issues are all the fault of "crazy" people. They think that people with mental health issues need to try harder and "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." This way of thinking creates a stigma against mentally ill people and shame. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one in five Americans experience mental illness in their lifetime.
Myth: 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 tried harder. In fact, mental illness has nothing to do with weakness or laziness. It occurs through many factors beyond the person’s control, such as trauma and family history.
Myth: 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. Each individual with mental illness has different needs, but most benefit from medication, therapy, and support from family and friends. They can have "normal" lives where they work and have healthy relationships.
Myth: 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.
Determining Our Reaction to Insensitive Comments
We need to gauge what we are going to say in response to insensitive remarks. Would they accept what I say if I address this? How would these people feel about being corrected? Would they be willing to be educated about mental illness?
Before we decide how to respond, we need to keep our emotions in check and under control. If we rage and blast people, they will probably shut down and retaliate. An emotional encounter can escalate into an argument. However, if we are calm, people are more like to listen to what we have to say.
Responses to Inappropriate Remarks
Ignore The Comments
Some insensitive remarks are not worth a response. For whatever reason, the offenders are not open to someone correcting their opinions. If we tried, they would just become defensive and hostile or walk away from us. A small number of people have sadistic tendencies and deliberately say outrageous things to upset others. They love to start an argument. If we do not respond, they will give up and find other victims they can provoke.
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Acknowledge The Comments and Correct Them
We should acknowledge that we listened to the comments in a neutral manner. We can then gently correct them. We need to keep our composure even though we may be fuming inside. If we are overly emotional, they may dismiss what we are saying.
Educate the Person About Mental Illness
Many people make inappropriate remarks because they believe in mental illness myths or are ignorant. Comments can become opportunities to educate them. For example, many people think that people are mentally ill because they are lazy and unwilling to make an effort to get better. Offenders need to know that mental illness is not a choice, a character flaw, or weakness.
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 poem. This use of the word shows a common misconception about schizophrenia – that the condition is dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder.
In actuality, people who have schizophrenia have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy. They struggle through psychotic episodes with verbal and auditory hallucinations and delusions.
When I explain this to him, he was reluctant to give up what he felt described the dual nature of autumn winds. He then agreed to change his wording to a more accurate descriptor.
Tips for effective education:
- Watch your tone and demeanor: This education should not be preachy or be done in a condescending way. Logical, non-emotional words can diffuse a tense situation and avoid an argument. It is important that the speakers do not feel that we are attacking them.
- Add personal story: This can ease tension and educate in a non-threatening way. It may help to try to relate to speakers by saying something like, "You know, I used to think the same thing about bipolar disorder, but I have learned that ...”
- Do not criticize people: If we tell them what they said was ignorant or stupid, they will shut down and will not listen. They may attack us and try to start an argument.
As a mental health advocate with mentally ill loved ones, I want to respond to insensitive comments with a lecture on how wrong the offenders are. I realize that trying to enlighten some people is a waste of breath. However, most people are open to hearing correction and beeing educated. Although some strides have been made in educating the public about mental illness, more work needs to be done.
CDC Mental Illness Surveillance, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Please, Don't React; Respond, NAMI
Things not to say to someone with mental illness, PsychCentral, Margarita Tartakovsy
Myths and Facts, MentalHealth.gov
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Carola Finch
Misbah Sheikh on June 01, 2021:
Thanks for sharing this article. I found it very useful. People with mental illnesses can live "regular" lives, working and maintaining healthy relationships.
Unfortunately, even in today's world, just a few people comprehend this.
Thank you for providing this information. I enjoyed reading it, and I am grateful for that.
Blessings and Peace