When People Do Not Understand Mental Illness
By: Beth McHugh 2007
When you have a mental illness, whether it be depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia, or any of the raft of conditions that plague we humans, it is inevitable that, somewhere along our journey of recovery, we will encounter people who do not understand.
But they are not content with merely not understanding mental illness. They feel it is their duty to deliver “advice”. Often, much of that advice is wrong, even harmful. In fact, if carefully questioned, many of the people who make derogatory or misinformed remarks to those suffering from a mental illness actually know very little about those conditions on which they seek to expound their theories.
Let’s take the case of Kate, a so-called friend of Elise. Elise is suffering from a recurring bout of depression. Kate thinks that she knows how best to help Elise, and that “help” consists of telling her basically to “wake up to herself”. She attempts to make Elise feel angry by telling her that if she carries on in this way “she will lose everything and everybody that she loves in her life”. She continues this rant by informing Elise that she is obviously a person who “will never be anything or anybody”. Kate mistakenly believes she will “shock” her friend out of her depression. Clearly, Kate knows very little about how depression works.
Fortunately, Elise has had previous experience in dealing with people like this, so she does not take any of this nonsense on board. But for every Elise, there are a thousand other sufferers who would be deeply affected by comments such as these. Unbelievably, people such as Kate genuinely believe they are helping the Elises of this world. What was worse in this case is that this “help” was delivered in an email, where Kate could have no idea of the effect her words would have on her friend.
No qualified counselor would be foolish enough to say such things to a patient for many reasons. Firstly, it would be unethical to treat a patient with such a lack of respect. People like Kate genuinely believe that they are delivering some sort of insight to the depressed person. They believe that their words will somehow come as “news” to the sufferer and who, upon hearing these words of wisdom, will suddenly get well. It doesn’t really take an Einstein to realize that if a person could “pull their socks up”, they would. Yet day after day around the world, these are the kind of statements that are made to mental health sufferers. Not only do people who make these statements misunderstand the situation, they are actually afraid of it, and this is the way they best cope.
And no qualified counselor would deliver such harsh words when they are unavailable to monitor the effect it is having on their client. Kate took neither of these aspects into account when she delivered her “words of wisdom” to Elise. Again, this would be unethical behavior on the part of a therapist, but the likes of Kate and many like her think nothing of treating a sick person in this manner. In fact, they mistakenly believe they are being helpful.
The bottom line is that you, your friend, or your family member who suffers from a mental illness has a real illness. No person wants to suffer unnecessarily and if they could “pull their socks up”, they would have done so long ago. Unhelpful comments from the uninformed are hurtful, but you must try your hardest to ignore their remarks and focus on the truth. You know that you are a valuable person, with a special role to play in life. You know your illness is real and for the moment beyond your control. But you will improve. Keep positive and surround yourself with positive people, people who will take the time to try to understand your problem and will support you in a loving and accepting way.
Negative people, such as the Kates of this world, are best given a very wide berth.