What to Do When Someone Tells You They Have a Mental Illness
It’s extremely difficult to tell someone you have a mental illness. No one really likes a conversation that’s along the lines, of, “Hi. How’s the family? Did you know I have a possibly fatal, lifelong condition?”
It’s kind of a bummer.
But telling someone you have a mental illness is hard on the person you tell too. It’s not just hard to give the news; it’s hard to receive it. In fact, most people have no idea what to say upon hearing that someone has a mental illness. They may not know anything about the mental illness or only know what the media tells them – that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and scary. And while that may not be accurate, if it’s the only thing the person has ever heard, you can’t really blame them for acting negatively – at least initially.
So if someone tells you they have a mental illness, what should you do?
Your Loved One Tells You They Have a Mental Illness
When the person tells you they have a mental illness, it’s important to get across a few things:
- Acknowledgement – thank-you for telling me, I know that must have been hard
- Compassion – I’m so sorry to hear that
- Questioning and non-judgement – can you tell me more about that?
- Love – I still love you and I’ll always love you
- Support – is there anything I can do to help?
These are simple things. They are just about reinforcing your relationship and that you care about the person. They are about showing the person with the mental illness that the illness has not changed your view of them. They are about showing the person with the mental illness that their worst fear has not come true – you’re not going to abandon them.
Your Loved One Has a Mental Illness
You’ll notice that the above conversation doesn’t require that you know anything about mental illness – that’s because mental illness is just like any other illness and you don’t have to be an expert to be a great support.
That being said, if you care about the person with a mental illness, I do recommend you educate yourself on the illness. This takes time; don’t pressure yourself. But take the time to look up some basic information on the disorder so that you know what you’re dealing with. It’s going to help out all the future conversations you have with the person with the mental illness. It will also remove fear – because the unknown is scary, but facts you can deal with.
You Messed Up When Your Loved One Told You about Their Mental Illness
OK, so you didn’t handle it perfectly when your loved one told you they had a mental illness. Maybe you said the wrong thing, maybe you did the wrong thing, maybe you walked away or maybe you panicked and made a bad joke. That’s OK. No one is perfect. You still have all the time in the world to have the right conversation with the person with the mental illness. Better late than never. Believe me; we appreciate your support even if it wasn’t instantaneous.
Support Your Loved One with a Mental Illness
In the end, it’s about love and support. You might mess up the words but if you get the sentiment right, it’ll be OK. There is no perfect way of handling this kind of news, after all. In the end, it’s about love, compassion and support. You might mess up the words but if you get the sentiment right, it’ll be OK.
But if there’s one thing I can emphasize it’s asking what the person with the mental illness needs. Because you’re not going to know what that is. The person with the mental illness might not even know. But by asking, you have the best chance to meet an ill person’s needs while they are likely going through a tough time.
And it’s OK to say what your needs are too. Maybe you need to learn more. Maybe you need to hear more about their experience. Maybe you need time. Maybe you need a bit of space while you work things out. These things are OK as long as love, support and compassion are also part of the picture. It’s OK to say, “I love you but I think I need some time to adjust to this news.”
Both of you can walk away, maybe a bit shell-shocked, but with your needs met. Hearing about mental illness isn’t the end of the world, it’s just a bump in the road that you have to adjust to and move forward.
About Natasha Tracy
Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.