5 Common Traps to Avoid When Discussing Mental Illness

In my blogs, I often highlight the importance of the language we use when communicating about mental illness – whether at work, around family and friends, or in school. Today, I would like to take the concept a step further and share the 5 common traps to avoid when discussing mental illness:

1) Referring to mental illness as something the person suffering is doing, rather than experiencing:

This trap most commonly occurs when a person speaks of another’s mental illness in various vague terms like “issue,” “problem” or “difficulty.” On their own, these terms seem innocuous. However, we don’t say such things when referring to someone with breast cancer, or someone who has had a heart attack. In those cases, we are clear in our word choice that, for example, “Nancy has been diagnosed with breast cancer” and “Frank is in hospital recovering from a heart attack.”

The language used makes it clear those things happened to Nancy and Frank, and aren’t their fault. If we were to say “Nancy is having issues with breast cancer,” not only would that sound odd to most of us, but it would imply that Nancy has some choice, or responsibility, in the matter. This opens the door to judgment, stigma and discrimination while closing the door to empathy.

2) Allowing feelings of awkwardness or discomfort take the lead when discussing mental illness:

We have all been there, and understand how difficult it can be to know what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one, or who has been diagnosed with a serious illness. We often feel awkward in these situations, regardless whether the illness is physical (like cancer) or mental (like clinical depression).

However, with known physical illnesses there is an overwhelming instinct to be empathetic – and to show others your empathy – when placed in these uncomfortable situations. Invariably, people find a way to show they feel this empathy and, in doing so, show they are not judging, discriminating or being guided by stigma in any way. Unfortunately, this empathy often loses to the awkwardness when it comes to speaking of mental illness, and the result is the person suffering is concerned about your lack of comfort – when you should be showing concern for them.

3) Doing or saying nothing:

This is related to trap #2 – when we are afraid of the awkwardness we feel, sometimes it is easier to simply say or do nothing when a friend or colleague suffers from a mental illness. This can feel safe, but it is a dangerous trap because when everyone (or the majority) follows this path, the result is the person suffering receives very little support.

An excellent example of this is described in my blog “the get-well card incident.” (http://www.empowerproservices.com/blog/the-get-well-card-incident/)

4) Questioning the motives or work ethic of the person suffering:

Clinical depression is one of the most common, and most commonly misunderstood, mental illnesses. Anyone who has ever felt depressed, which is everyone, can fall into the trap of thinking they therefore understand clinical depression. As a result, it is very easy to say “I’ve felt depressed and was able to work through it; it wasn’t fun but I did it. Why can’t he?”

When I initially experienced clinical depression, I frequently had to face this obstacle. It is a truly terrible feeling to have to explain and, worse, justify the illness you are experiencing (which is shutting your life down). To be that ill and be trying harder to fight through it than you have ever tried at anything, and failing, is beyond frustrating. To then feel others questioning your work ethic or motives is devastating.

5) Ask if a person plans to stop treatment now that they are feeling better:

I have been speaking to students and corporate employees for years, sharing my experiences with bipolar disorder in order to help others overcome stigma and reduce the impact of mental illness. During that time, I have lost count of how often I have been asked if I plan to stop my treatment (or if I ever thought of doing so) given I am living symptom-free.

I have never understood this question. Growing up, I had a friend with Type 1 Diabetes who had to take two insulin injections every single day. He seemed healthy overall, but even at 10 years old I never once considered asking Patrick if planned to stop his injections. I understood he had an illness and needed this treatment to avoid symptoms of his illness.

Of course not every mental illness is so clear-cut with respect to treatment, however in many cases a treatment addresses a chemical imbalance that cannot otherwise be controlled. To ask this question implies that it can, in fact, be controlled somehow by the person – which brings us back to trap #4.

Falling into these traps is, unfortunately, very easy to do given the prevalence of stigma in our society. It can – and does – happen to the best-intentioned of us. I have seen volunteers who dedicate all of their free time towards raising awareness of mental illness and stigma fall into one or more of these traps. I have seen people who I know have a deep understanding of mental illness and zero stigma towards it fall into one of these traps. And, prior to experiencing mental illness and stigma first-hand, I fell into many of these traps, too.

In many ways, years of direct and indirect stigma and discrimination towards mental illness, as well as a consistently negative portrayal in movies, television, news and other pop culture, have set us up to fail. My challenge to you is that while it is easy to fail, it is possible to overcome and avoid these traps. The sooner we all do so, the sooner stigma will truly be a thing of the past.

This blog post was written by Jason Finucan. Catch Jason at momondays Ottawa, ON on 12/12/2016! Click here for details and tickets.

"I became a professional inspirational speaker and founded Empower Professional Services to open people’s minds up to the reality of stigma. Having experienced both a major physical and mental illness, I learned what a negative – and truly unnecessary – force stigma could be. My hope is to help people overcome this challenge.” http://www.empowerproservices.com

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