Even well-intentioned responses can still land badly, so it’s important we are aware of common mistakes when trying to support people with their mental health.
With all mental health struggles, try to avoid minimizing, comparing, analyzing, advice-giving, and projecting.
Minimizing / Denial
When someone is suffering, it is very common for people to respond with a minimizing or denying statement. In other words, it is very common for people to minimize or deny the degree of suffering being experienced. One reason for this is because it is easier to believe the person’s problem is not as bad as we think it is. Unfortunately, this also has the unintended effect of making someone feel unheard or unvalidated in what they are going through. One of the most powerful things we can do in the face of great suffering is simply acknowledge how difficult it is for someone.
Have you tried running?
What this statement communicated is that there is a simple fix for the suffering and pain being experienced by the person we are trying to help. Typically, with mental health conditions, there is no simple fix. To suggest the solution to their problem is some simple activity can be really demeaning, even if research has shown running is helpful.
Everyone goes through things like this.
This probably comes from a place o misunderstanding what mental health conditions are. Yes, everyone experiences ebbs and flows in their mental health, but not everyone experienced a diagnosable mental health condition. We need to acknowledge those experiences are different and one is much more difficult.
Things could be much worse.
This statement implies that the person should not be struggling with their mental health condition as much as they are. This reinforces a sense of guilt and inferiority in the sufferer because mental health conditions cannot be controlled through willpower.
At least you’ve got people who care about you.
Any statement beginning with “at least” is a minimizing statement. “At least” statements deny the pain and suffering the person is trying to express by pointing out something more positive to focus on. This is so unhelpful because the pain is not made less intense by the absence of pain in other areas. It’s like saying to someone with intense stomach pain: “At least the rest of your body doesn’t hurt!”
A general rule of thumb: you should only tell someone about your experience or another person’s experience with something similar if A) they ask if you know someone who has been through it, or B) you ask if they would like to hear abut your story or someone else’s. Comparison usually brings the focus away from the sufferer and on to the supporter, which is definitely not the point when you are trying to actively support someone.
I completely understand what you’re going through.
The intention is to make the person feel less alone, but this can land poorly especially if you haven’t made time and space to understand ho their experience is unique to them. Consider that even if you have the same diagnosis as someone, one mental health condition can be experience very differently from person to person.
I had a friend who went through this.
Again, your friend’s experience could be very different. Have you taken the time to hear out this person’s unique story? Also, this brings the focus away from the sufferer and on to someone else who isn’t even there. The person needs you to focus on listening to them and their experience, not talk about someone else’s.
Analyzing is when we are more interested in the problem than the person. In other words, analyzing is when we stick to the facts of the situation while ignoring the emotional experience of the human within it. This kind of response can make the sufferer fell more like a case study or a statistic than an individual.
I think you have anxiety because….
One in five people experience mental health conditions.
Both of these statements are focussed on the knowledge of the supporter and not on the experience of the sufferer. Even if you have knowledge relevant to the sufferer’s situation, it does not help the person to feel heard, understood, or supported in their suffering.
In many situations, giving advice can be very helpful. For example, advice can be very helpful when someone needs help changing a flat tire, or needs recipe recommendations, or wants to try a new product. But when someone is suffering from a complex medical condition – which mental health conditions are – advice-giving is usually out of place. More often than not, people have already tried the suggestions you come up with or simple suggestions undermine how complex and individual mental health conditions can be.
Meditation cured my friend of depression.
That’s great for your friend, but what about the person in front of you now? Just because something worked for someone, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
What about getting outside more?
Again, getting outside may help, but this minimizes just how difficult the person’s situation is. Here you’re implying a simple fix for a complex problem.
Counselling would make you feel better.
We don’t know this for sure. And what if it doesn’t? What if they’ve tried it? We can’t guarantee what will or won’t work.
You should try medication.
Always avoid “should” statements. It is important people make their own decision about their mental health.
Projecting is when we project our perspective or thoughts of the person onto the other person. In other words, we assume what the other person’s experience must be like based on our experiences and perceptions of the mental health condition they are experiencing. Instead of making assumptions, we want to sit down and ask people about their experience. This helps people feel more seen and heard in their struggles.
You are so strong.
You must feel awful.
Both of these statements are about our perspective of the situation and the person, rather than the sufferer’s perspective. Oftentimes, people can feel really weak when they are mentally unwell. Telling someone they are strong can make people feel like they aren’t living up to expectation when they feel weak. Let the person know how they feel rather than telling them how they must feel.