Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Unicorns and Rainbows: Things You Shouldn't say to Someone with a Mental Illness

In a terribly misguided attempt to understand my struggle with mental illness, my husband once inquired about my inability to leave the house during especially exasperated episodes of my depression or anxiety.  He explained, “I just don’t understand why you can’t get up.  I don’t know what I can do to help.”  He then posed the following question, “I mean, what if I told you they were giving away free unicorns and rainbows at work, then would you go?”  I despised him at that moment.  Free unicorns and rainbows? I thought to myself. Christ, what kind of ignorant dick did I marry?

The truth, however, is that he’s not a dick at all.  He’s a kind, considerate man who is frustrated with a very complicated invisible illness. No one wants to see someone they love suffer, so those around us often try to offer advice and encouragement.  Despite best intentions, however, there’s some things we’re sick of hearing.  The following phrases are not helpful, and should be avoided when attempting to support someone who suffers from mental illness.  

1.       “Just cheer up! Look on the bright side of life!”

Are you kidding me?  This is about the dumbest shit ever you could say to someone who is suffering from depression or bipolar disorder.  Yet, I have heard this (and similar phrases) too many times to count.  I can’t “just cheer up”; I have a chemical imbalance.  I don’t choose to feel this way.  There’s a difference between being pessimistic and being bipolar.  The problem is not that I see the glass as half-empty; I have a problem with nerve cell communication.

2.       “Things could be worse.”

 Of course things could be worse.  I could be homeless and on the streets, fighting to survive, badly beaten and malnourished, addicted to methamphetamines. However, the consideration of hypothetical negative situations does nothing to improve my current mood.  I’m not ungrateful.  I know I have a wonderful, supportive family and many other blessings, but none of this negates the fact that I’m bipolar.  No one considers telling a cancer patient that things could be worse, so why does it seem an acceptable response to mental illness?

3.       “… but we love you.”

My own spouse has been guilty of this phrase quite often.  He might say something like, “C’mon Angela, you can get out of bed today.  I know you’re depressed, but we love you so much.”   This makes me feel so awful and guilty.  He thinks he is simply expressing affection, but when I hear that “but,” I hear, “I know you’re depressed, but if you loved us enough, you would get out of bed.”  I don’t know how to love my family any more than I do.  They are my everything, and I love them with my whole heart.  My depressive episodes are not linked to their love for me or my love for them.  After explaining this to him, my husband now simply says, “I love you … period.”

4.       “Maybe you should see a therapist.”

To this response, I want to shout, “Why thank you!  Hmmm … do you realize that in my over two decades of living with mental illness I had never before considered that therapy could be beneficial?  Thank you so much, you incredible genius.”  Here’s where that sarcasm font becomes necessary.  I already have a therapist, as most people with mental illness probably do too.  The woman I meet with, though, is a licensed psychotherapist – not a wizard.  Therapy teaches us how to manage our illness; it cannot cure it.  Mental illness is a chronic condition. 

5.       “Just snap out of it already!”

Okay, remember when I said above that “just cheer up” is about the dumbest shit you could say to an individual who suffers from mental illness.  I might have lied; this one is the ultimate ignorant douche-bag response to mental illness.  Again, would you tell the man who suffers from diabetes to “just snap out of it”?  Would you suggest that the blind man just “suck it up” and see already?  I would hope the response to these questions is negative, as the situations most assuredly seem absurd.  Likewise, it’s absurd to expect an individual who suffers from major depressive disorder, or some similar mental illness, to just snap out of it.  That suggestion implies that mental illness is not a legitimate, valid health disorder, and that belief demonstrates brazen ignorance and disregard.    

If even the prospect of unicorns and rainbows can’t “cure” my mental illness, please trust that none of the above comments is going to be the answer I’ve been waiting for either.  Instead of offering up misguided advice and ignorant, tired clich├ęs, I suggest you try education and empathy.  I make these suggestions not only for myself, but on behalf of your sister, your best friend, your co-worker, your coach, your aunt, your uncle.  Too many individuals suffer their mental illness in silence for fear of receiving judgment and responses like those above.  Let’s make an effort to break the silence and truly support one another together.


  1. I love that, "The woman that I meet with is a psychotherapist, not a wizard..." Truer words have never been spoken. From one who suffers from a mental illness to another, I am already your biggest fan!

    1. Thank you very much. I have a fantastic therapist too, but so many people seem to think therapy will "cure" the disorder. They don't realize it's chronic. Best wishes as you continue to battle the bitch.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you. I am glad others recognize themselves in it; then I know I'm coming from the right place with the right intent. Thanks!

  3. Very nice. Well written in easy to understand terms.