What to say to someone with Mental Health needs

Suffering with mental illness is difficult enough without the common and frequent periods where we reach out for help, from a loved one, a professional, an acquaintance and we are left feeling completely invalidated. I wrote recent posts ranting about this and then also trying to make some more empathetic understanding of their perspective. Basically what I mean by this is understanding that they don’t mean to invalidate. It’s just so easy to do. 

Often with mental illness people who are reached out to will naturally try to display compassion and understanding. Say for example you were suffering with a death of a loved one, talking to someone who had experienced the same things could provide all sorts of feelings of support, understanding, compassion etc. 

But what if you talk to someone who hasn’t had this experience, they would try to understand and console you just the same but this comes across as so obviously fabricated, not in a malicious way, but it is clear that they don’t have their own experiences to base this on. Someone trying to tell you they understand you whilst simultaneously demonstrating that they don’t is incredibly frustrating, you feel even less understood, even less able to connect with others and seek the support that you need. 

Similarly, what if the person you talk to has experienced death, but experienced it in a way that differs greatly to yours. Their advice, based in their own experience, would seem so reliable this time, but would be so unhelpful if their techniques don’t work for you. Everybody experiences mental illness differently, and this is often the case. Two people with the same illness can experience almost opposing symptoms and require completely different treatment plans. Following the wrong plan or advice would only worsen symptoms, frustrations and feelings of being misunderstood and invalidated. 

My experiences with invalidation

I have felt invalidation in so many ways. My partner told me before I was properly diagnosed that diagnosis would be bad for me, that I can’t be bipolar because he’s never seen me bouncing off the walls. When I have reached out to friends they have told me all I need to do is make plans and have things to look forward to. When dealing with psychotic symptoms I reached out to a professional who told me I was possessed by evil spirits. I really wish the answers were this simple, that the truth could be so black and white but it is not. I was left feeling like I had nobody to turn to when I really needed to feel understood so I turned to YouTube which worked for a little while. 

How to validate someone with a Mental Illness

Validation is possible for anybody to achieve when supporting someone with a mental illness. 

1. I believe the key thing to remember is that it is okay that you don’t understand. It is okay to say that. Just say it in a supportive way. For example 

That sounds very difficult to manage, is there anything I can do that might help you when you feel that way?

Is much more validating than,

Yeah I feel that way too and all you need to do is x

Or even worse an answer that resembles 

Oh right. 

What a shitty response right? Yet I get this so often. 

2. Be reaffirming, when someone is suffering with mental illness their thinking is twisted. When I am feeling low self-esteem itis extremely helpful if someone can remind me of the achievements in my life that I can’t see in that state. I may need reminding of this every day, or every couple of days, but this formulates a kind of CBT like behavioural training that can help us to reshape our thoughts into positive ones. 

Saying that if the suffer snaps back at you if you attempt this, give them space as they just aren’t in a place where they will take in what you are saying or even perceive your intentions as good. You are hurting us, we aren’t ready, maybe later we will be. 

This leads me to my next point

3. Be patient with us. As I said we may need you to perform the same action multiple times before we truly see what you are doing for us. Sometimes we need to approach things in a mind-set we seemingly never achieve, and we always bite back, or we don’t make sensible decisions or help ourselves very well. We will and trust us we are fighting with everything we have even if you cannot see that. If you can trust us on that, and not push or pressure us, but instead display patience we will be truly grateful. 

My experience with validation.

As I said validation is entirely possible with mental illness and this is something I have been fortunate enough to experience recently. 

Since being told I was possessed and having yet to feel stabilised on medication I have felt sceptical of professionals. During a recent review where I was detailing the experiences of the mixed episode I have been in since starting my new medication the nurse said how well I was doing managing my job, social life, gym etc. alongside these symptoms and for the first time in ages I felt a professional was actually understanding and believing the extent to which I have been experiencing these symptoms. I felt so validated, like YES I am actually doing very well thank you for not following that on with ‘so you can’t be bipolar’ it is a testament to my character, will and strength. 

I have recently made a new friend, hello if you’re reading this you know who you are. He is such a positive influence on my life, he allows me to talk about my experiences and he will say when he can’t understand something but will still try to relate to it in a positive way. It is so refreshing to meet someone who can empathise with me. He even has ways of spotting how I am feeling which is validating in itself, the effects if my mental illness can be seen by those who choose to see it. He worries he is going to say the wrong thing, the fact that he even recognises his ability to potentially upset me is supportive in itself, that he cares how I feel about what he says.  

I really hope I don’t lose these sources of validation, but continue to gain them over time. 


Photo by Andrew C. from FreeImages


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