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What Not to Say to Those Suffering From Mental Illness

01/28/2015 08:20 EST | Updated 03/30/2015 05:59 EDT
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A studio shot of an emotionally distressed young woman sitting on the floor with her head in her arms

I suffer from mental illness. It's something that I've been wading through for many years, however the last 18 months have seen me break down and lay in a pile of broken glass, the shards sticking through every piece of me until I cried out for mercy. Crawling on my knees, I've travelled and am still travelling a journey to a healthier, more stable state of mind.

As my psychiatrists have helped me to retrace the steps of my various mental illnesses to their origins which go back 30 years, the realization that some of my behaviours were symptoms of my mental illnesses rather than only stupid mistakes (and no, I don't blame everything on being bipolar II, among other disorders) -- this realization has forced me to accept diagnoses which I never ever would have thought would apply to me.

January 28 is Bell's annual Let's Talk campaign, an initiative to bring awareness about mental illness, and help break down the stigma which not only prevents discussion on this subject matter, but more importantly, makes people fearful of the dialogue.

In order to participate in this campaign, I've had many relevant topics scroll through my mind. However, at this time, to really nail the concept of what mental illness is and how it affects both those who live with it and those who live with us, here are a few tips to guide in what I hope will be an ever-growing trend to encourage communication and break down the stereotypes.

So without further ado, here are things to refrain from saying to someone with mental illness:

1. When first discovering that someone has a mental illness, avoid any of the below:

• It'll pass

• It's all in your head

• You're just looking for attention

Hopefully it will pass, but there is no guarantee, and unless you are a physician and more specifically one who is treating me, please do not make such a blanket statement. It minimizes the severity of the ailment.

And yes, it is all in my head...and in my heart when it palpitates so strongly from the anxiety which grips me for various reasons...and it's in my stomach from the pains I have when I take enough laxatives to provide constipation relief for a small village...and it's in my gut from the nausea caused by my medication.

And no, I am not just looking for attention. If I wanted attention, I'd dye my hair hot pink, not lay in the fetal position wishing the sadness would just go away so I could exhale...I just want to stop holding my breath and breathe like a normal person instead of these ragged little gasps for air.

2. When discovering someone has a mental illness, please do not say, "Oh yeah, I have that too."

Maybe you do have "that" too, but if by "that" you're comparing the symptoms used to describe bipolar I or II as comparable to your PMS, then no, you do not have "that" too. (Trust me, I've heard it.) Or if by "that," you're comparing someone's OCD to the fact that you vacuum religiously once a week, then no, it's not the same thing. Or if by "that" you're describing the anxiety you experienced when you got stopped by the cops for speeding, to the anxiety people suffering from this mental illness experience at the very thought of stepping out the front door of their home, then no. Not the same "that."

By making these points, I am in no way discouraging dialogue. But do not presume that you know how someone's mental illness is manifesting. Ask questions. Be kind. But more importantly, if this discussion has been sparked, then ask, "I'm not completely familiar with mental illness. Are you comfortable discussing it? Is there anything I can do for you?"

3. When discovering someone has a mental illness, please, for the love of everything that's good, do not say: "I'm sure you're fine now. You look fine to me."

Great! I'm glad you think I look fine, but just because I can accessorize, this does not negate my diagnoses and its symptoms. Just because I suffer from depression does not mean I can't apply makeup. If I was suffering from a physical ailment, would you presume to know the state of my health based on how well I styled my hair?

4. When discovering someone has a mental illness, do not say, "That's weird. Nobody else in your/our family suffers from a mental illness."

Yes, you're right; sometimes mental illness is hereditary, but not always. And because I have ADD or OCD, or depression, or schizophrenia, or bipolar I or II, or anxiety, or an eating disorder, and you can't imagine why, then ask why. Educate yourself. Google it. Just because you don't know anyone who suffers from mental illness does not mean it's not as real and as debilitating as any other illness.

5. But most of all do not be afraid to say the words "mental illness." Bringing awareness to this fact can only serve to spark dialogue, which in turn brings about change not only for those who are waging a silent war, but for their friends and families who lack the words and perhaps the courage to stand by the warriors.

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