What Not to Say to a Struggler
There is a suicide in every 40 seconds, according to World Health Organization. Sometimes, it is obvious when someone we know is struggling but other times the signs can be a lot more subtle than we think. The story below shows how a suicidal person could look ‘okay' at work:
“Sarah, one of the vets working for me, came into the clinic one day and asked for my permission to get some tranquilizers to put down a bull on-site which broke its hip in an accident. Having the experience working with big animals myself, I gave her my permission to bring some tranquilizers out of the clinic to ease the animal’s pain. No one would have expected Sarah to use those tranquilizers on herself to commit suicide. She was always so cheerful and happy at work.”
Some individuals with mental health issues have learnt to wear social masks in order to blend in with other people and to avoid the social stigma that mental health issues often carry (link to my Break the Stigma article). We may not notice any obvious signs or symptoms and it can be hard to put ourselves into their heads to understand what is going on for them. With that, we are often poorly-equipped to know what to say to people who are struggling with mental health issues. We risk sounding insensitive, inconsiderate and dismissive, even though we do not mean to be any of those things.
Here are some examples of what not to say when someone with mental health issues (a struggler) who confides his or her struggles in you:
“Look at those kids in Africa. You should be grateful with what you have.”
Emotional pain does not discriminate. We can be famous, rich, intelligent, and still struggle with depression and anxiety. The struggler is not asking to be compared with anyone else. He or she is talking about himself or herself. No matter how perfect things look like from the outside, their feelings are feelings, and all feelings are valid.
“Everything will be alright.”
It does not matter when the struggler is overwhelmed and cannot see the future. At that moment, things do not look like they are going to be alright to the struggler. Such encouragement can be misplaced and misinterpreted. Besides, are we going to be responsible if anything happens to ‘everything is going to be alright'?
“What were you thinking? Stop focusing on the bad stuff.”
People who have gone through intense and extreme times in their early years can still be overwhelmed thinking about it later in their lives and their feelings can be just as intense. If they could help it, they too, would choose not to have such thoughts. Saying that could be giving the wrong message that the struggler is being blamed for struggling.
Here are some examples of what we can say to the struggler instead:
1. “Thanks for having the courage to share your struggles with me. It is not easy.”
2. “Is there anything I could do to help you?”
3. “Your sharing of the pain you experienced does not change how I perceive you.”
The aim is to acknowledge what the person struggling has been through without inserting our own interpretations of their emotional pain. More often than not, they are not looking for someone to correct or fix them, they are looking for someone to listen without judging and to validate their pain.