how not to be a dick (to someone with mental health issues)

As a campaigner for mental health, when I talk with others advocates about ending the stigma, it always comes back to starting conversations. Talking about it, changing opinions and improving the language used when referring to mental health is the only way to progress.

What I’ve noticed when we do start these conversations, is that people often don’t know how to respond. That is not always their fault. If they haven’t had any experience with mental health issues (MHI), or haven’t received any education on the matter, how would they know what to say? All of us have grown up in a world that heavily stigmatises mental health, less so now for sure, but it is still viewed in a damning way. We have to re-educate ourselves and be willing to listen to those that are telling us what they need,

Here I am, starting a conversation and teaching you what to say when someone discusses mental health with you. Follow these 10 not-so-easy steps and you probably won’t sound like a complete dick. You might even save a life.

1. Listen, properly.

Often, we listen to respond, rather than listening to understand. Slow down and really engage with the person who is talking to you.  Use effective listening techniques to ensure that you understand what they are saying and make them feel heard. It’s a great skill to have. Simple tips are: maintaining eye contact, visualising what the other person is saying and summarising what they have said, before following with an open question. This will make people feel like you understand and you care, which is a pretty great. It may feel weird at first if you are out of practice, but hopefully people will be encouraged to continue speaking. Have a real conversation, don’t be scared of it.

2. Don’t dismiss their feelings.

Don’t belittle or dismiss their feelings and experiences. If someone is presenting you with an issue, do not brush it off. It might have taken a lot of courage for this person to admit that something is wrong, and telling them it’s nothing to worry about won’t help. Take what they say seriously and tell them that you believe them. Don’t silence someone who seriously needs to talk.

3. Don’t try and solve their problems.

People feel that in order to help someone, they have to provide answers. This is not true, and probably lots of what you suggest after reading an article you saw on BuzzFeed, we will have:

a) tried before
b) tried before
c) cause offence as mental illness probably can’t be fixed by ‘“getting out more”
d) tried before.

I’m not coming to you for solutions, I have my therapist who really likes cats and wears neon brogues for that. Sometimes people just need to be listened to and supported emotionally. If you tell someone to go to the gym more, expect a death stare and never to be spoken to again.

4. Don’t be judgemental.

Mental illness is not something that can always be controlled, so sometimes they may take unusual actions to cope. Whether it being staying in bed till four pm, cutting off all my hair or drinking myself stupid, please don’t judge me. I’m trying my best. Being concerned is different to being judgemental. If you see warning signs within your friend’s behaviour, or are worried about them, ensure that this comes across as concern, rather than judgment. Judgement creates shame, which creates silence. 

5. Don’t avoid the topic.

So many people don’t like to bring up mental illness, when in reality, it can be a huge part of people’s daily lives. Ignoring the issue will make people less likely to open up, because it is exhausting exposing yourself emotionally all the time. Extend the branch, ask someone specifically how their mental health is doing. By doing this you remove the barrier and allow someone to talk easily. You would ask how their broken arm is healing, why aren’t you asking about their mind?

Someone very bluntly asked me the other day, “how is your depression at the moment, are you managing?” I have never been asked that so bluntly before, it was refreshing and simple. Thankfully, I am at a point in my life where I could answer positively and honestly, that yes, things are going surprisingly well, thank you so much for asking, I appreciate it and I appreciate you.

6. Don’t make them feel like a burden.

Making someone feel guilty, or a burden for sharing their issues is unfortunately common. You may not mean to do it, but it will make them feel even worse than before. Instead of telling them that you “feel shit for not being able to help/knowing what to say,” tell them; “that sounds really tough and I will be here to support you whilst you work on it.” Simple changes to your language will have a huge, and well appreciated impact.

7. Don’t treat them as your go-to whenever you have a question about mental health.

Don’t assume that because a person is open about their mental health, they will always be able to discuss it, offer advice and support you. Instead of probing into some of their most painful experiences, perhaps try other forms of research or support, before turning to them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of you for reaching out and trying to learn more, and I want to help you more than anything, but please don’t assume that I have all the answers, or take advantage of my kindness. I often feel used and abused by people looking for emotional support. I offer what little I know and that’s the end of the relationship. I’m not told good news, or invited to celebrate their successes, I’m simply a dumping ground for their issues.

I am more than my mental illness, please engage with all aspects of me.

8. Don’t stop inviting them to things.

I know it’s annoying if someone turns down your invitation, or cancels last minute, but for someone with MHI, that might be an unfortunate necessity. Try to be understanding and put yourself in their shoes. Whenever I turn down invites, or cancel plans, it’s often something that I really wanted to do, but just aren’t capable of at that moment in time. I feel disappointed in myself for not going, I feel guilty for letting people down and I feel like a failure. Invite them the week after, they might be feeling better. Don’t let your friends drown in isolation or exclusion, a breeding ground for MH. Make them feel wanted with your actions as well as your words and be patient.

9. Don’t allow yourself to take on all their problems.

This is more a self care tip for you. It is hard to support someone with MHI, and you need to take care your own! The best way to be a friend is therefore to protect yourself, debrief with others about your own mental health and be honest with the sufferer if you need to take a step back. As your friends, we love you and we don’t want to see you suffer. We will understand, just be honest.

10 . Don’t say nothing.

Saying nothing, because you don’t know what to say is not the right way to go about it. It is better to say something and recognise the problem. If you are really stuck for phrases, use the short list I have compiled of generic, but essential things that everyone needs to hear every now and again, including you.

  • You are enough
  • You are strong
  • You are valued
  • You are important to me
  • I love you
  • I believe in you
  • I believe you
  • I will support you
  • I care about you
  • I appreciate that things are bad but I will be here to help you make things better
  • I will always be here
  • I will always listen to you
  • Things are terrible now, but it won’t be like this forever
  • You will get through this
  • Your feelings are valid
  • Your experiences are valid

People with MHI don’t get a free pass to be a terrible person, but sometimes their illness will make them act in a non-ideal way.  No one is perfect, but as long as we all try our best to be better, things will improve. All these tips must work both ways between the person with MHI and their friend/supporter. The tricky thing with mental health is that lines will often become blurred, and roles can be swapped, because mental health affects us all. Use these techniques to form better relationships and support networks with the people around you.

Be kind, because you never know when you might need the favour reciprocated.

If anyone has any other things that should be on the list, let me know so I can make a super list.


If you are in need of support, or in crisis, contact the Samaritans: 116-123