With or without sensitivity training, most people try to be considerate when speaking with someone with a physical disability or a health condition, and they choose their words carefully so as not to offend the individual. However, these same considerate people often forget that things can be said—or not said—which can hurt the feelings of those living with mental illness.
The fact that individuals with mental illness may be trying to hide it, or may feel stigmatized if they have revealed they have a disorder, makes them even more sensitive to the words they hear or the questions they are asked.
An obvious example is the use of adjectives “crazy,” “psycho,” “bipolar,” and the like when speaking to a person with mental illness about something like a sale, the Stock Market, or even the weather. Even worse, these adjectives are sometimes used to refer to a particular coworker—as in “depressed guy” or “bipolar girl.”
On the other hand, people who have misconceptions about or are uncomfortable dealing with mental illness often overcompensate and use language that they think is supportive, but can be hurtful.
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For example, a recent National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) blog cites this comment— “You don’t look depressed”—as being hurtful. Meant as a compliment, it implies that those with mental illness should appear ill in the way someone with a physical disease does. As a contributor to the blog put it, this statement is either inconsiderate, unsympathetic, or both. Or, it implies that if the person doesn’t look sick, they couldn’t really have a legitimate health problem—or even that he or she just made it up!
And, in a Yahoo Health post, people with mental disorders told The Mighty, a blog by writers and editors aimed at helping people facing disease and disability, how they would like people to speak to them.
“If you don’t know what it’s like to have a mental illness … sometimes it can be hard to know what to say,” according to the blog. One person told The Mighty that she wishes coworkers would ask her “normal” things like how she liked a TV show, not always just how she is feeling.
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Another said instead of asking her a generic “How are you?”, coworkers should actively engage in a conversation with the person so they can understand how she is doing that day, perhaps by saying something like “I noticed you seem down today—how are you really feeling?”
The Mighty has also listed these phrases as things not to say to people with a mental disorder:
- “It’s all in your head.”
- “Keep busy—it will distract you.”
- “I’m stressed out, too.”
- “Just pop a Xanax (or other medication).”
- “Others have it way worse than you. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
- “You have to want to get better; try harder.”
As the NAMI blog says, “People often use offensive language around mental health, sometimes without even realizing it. Encouraging them to use nonstigmatizing language is one of the easiest ways to stand up to stigma … the words you use matter.”