The Caveat

I am not a mental health professional, and I cannot and do not claim to speak for all people who experience mental illness. Also, no one could ever accuse me of being entirely tactful 100% of the time. 


Unhelpful comment 1

“My cousin/neighbour/friend/workmate’s boyfriend’s sister/etc. has {insert mental illness here} and they found {insert treatment here} very useful.”

Reflection: Would you give unsolicited treatment advice to a person with Adrenocortical Carcinoma based on what someone told you worked for a person with Squamous Cell Carcinoma? Hint: These are both types of cancer.


Unhelpful comment 2

“I feel like that sometimes.”

Reflection: Sort of like telling someone with cystic fibrosis that you know how they feel because you occasionally get a bit congested and/or short of breath.


Unhelpful comment 3

“You shouldn’t let your illness define you.”

Reflection: If I were to tell someone who had lost limb function on their dominant side due to a stroke that they shouldn’t let it interfere with how they live their life, could they be excused for slapping me with their non-dominant hand?


Unhelpful comment 4

“What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.”

Reflection: I wonder if anyone has ever said this to someone with an illness in which the main symptom is muscle wasting.


Unhelpful comment 5 

“But you seemed fine the other day.”

Reflection: When I was at school, a friend of mine had to be taken to hospital because she had a severe asthma attack. This was the first I knew that she had asthma.


Unhelpful comment 6

“I saw that movie Silver Linings Playbook, Dr Jekyll and My Hyde, One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest, Psycho {insert name of film with even the remotest reference to mental illness here}, and now I really understand what you’re going through.”

Reflection: Despite my extensive viewing of historical dramas I am yet to be offered employment as a history professor at any university. And some of my friends actually question the depth, breadth and accuracy of my historical knowledge.


Unhelpful comment 7

“I’ve read/heard/seen that people with mental illness are really creative. That’s something to be positive about.”

Reflection: Should we encourage a person with spinal injuries to look on the bright side because now they have the chance to compete at the Paralympics? Would the chance to be in the Paralympics constitute a bright side if the person didn’t actually like sport?


Unhelpful comment 8

“There are so many good treatments for mental illness these days.”

Reflection: Ebola is a virus + there are many new and effective treatments for viruses = ebola can be easily and effectively treated in all people. Right?


Unhelpful comment 9

“Do you still have that?”

Reflection: I’ve never thought to ask anyone with Type 1 Diabetes if they still have it. Surely the discovery of a universal cure for this chronic condition would have made the news?


Unhelpful comment 10

“So you’re just like {insert name of famous person here}.”

Reflection: I have high cholesterol, yet no one has ever compared me to David Letterman, Bill Clinton, Jessica Alba or Henry Winkler (who, according to the internet, also have cholesterol concerns).


The serious bit

I’ll try not to get too heavy here, because I’ve been told that talking about mental illness can be a real downer. Mental illness takes many forms, and scientific understanding of these conditions is constantly developing and definitions are regularly being revised. Mental illness can manifest to different degrees and with differing symptomology in different individuals. Evidence based treatments for different types of mental illness are diverse, and can have different levels of effectiveness and different extremes of side effects for different people. Mental illness can impact every aspect of a person’s life, including their career choices, occupational functionality, financial security, personal relationships, behaviour, decision making, physical well being and life expectancy.

I celebrate efforts to increase awareness of mental illness in Australia, because I know of the negative impacts that secrecy, avoidance and denial can have on the experience of people in psychiatric and psychological distress. However I am concerned that attempts to “normalise” mental health problems may also result in over-simplifying the extent of the challenge, and minimising the impacts of severe and chronic forms of illness. 



The intention of this article is not to make people wary of speaking to people with mental illness. Rather, I encourage avoiding assumptions, embracing active listening and respecting individual experience. It’s impossible to know how different use of language might impact different people. For example, if people refer to me as “weird” I never consider this to relate to my mental health. Now that I live in Sydney I generally assume it’s due to a misunderstanding of some aspect of my Queenslanderness. 


Author: Stavroola Anderson

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