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MHAM Toolkit: What to Say & What Not to Say    

MHAM Toolkit: What to Say & What Not to Say

By Meadowlark Monaghan

As we continue to open up the conversation surrounding mental health more and more, we learn the power our words hold. They say the pen is mightier than the sword with good reason. Yet, that might and weight have caused many conversations to happen late (or not at all) because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. 

While that’s a valid fear since mental health is such a sensitive subject, it is always better to simply make the space for conversation. Cancel culture has led us to believe that biting our tongue is safer than speaking up. The truth is, we don’t have all the answers, and we don’t need to. We just need to be there. 

This Mental Health Awareness Month, we want to encourage folks to have these conversations in spite of their fears. Allowing ourselves to support each other, fully knowing we are still learning together as we go, is what helps us normalize healing in real-time, learn from our mistakes, and validate each other along the way. 

At the end of the day, it’s simply about listening empathetically and being there. There is no need to “problem-solve” or give advice - leave that to the professionals! Your role as a healthy friend is to simply be there in whatever way makes someone feel supported. 

Remember that showing up imperfectly is better than not showing up at all. 

What to say: 

When speaking about mental health to a friend, there are some simple guidelines to follow. Use trauma-informed language that refrains from identifying someone as their diagnosis (“they’re bipolar” versus “they experience bipolar disorder”). Listen empathetically and hold healthy boundaries by not offering to fix the problem at hand, but simply being a pillar of support. 

  • “You’re not alone in this. I may not understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.”
  • “You’re so strong. I’m here for you through it all.” 
  • “What’s the best way I can support you right now?”
  • “Whenever you want to talk, I’ll listen — I’m just a call or a text away.”
  • “What you’re going through is tough. It’s okay to feel whatever it is that you are feeling.”
  • “I am here for you to do whatever I can as a friend. Do you think you might need additional support to get through this?”

If you are speaking about your own experience, use “I” statements, share when you feel comfortable and safe, and ask for help when you need it. 

Say something like: 

  • “I think something’s wrong because I feel _____. I’m worried that I may be depressed. Can we talk?”
  • “I’m okay, but not really okay. I need your help but don’t know where to start.”
  • “I think I should see a therapist, but I don’t know where to start. Can you help me find one and make sure I keep the appointment?”
  • “You can support me by _____. That would be really helpful to me.”

What not to say: 

One common mistake when speaking about mental health is toxic positivity. 

Toxic positivity is the inappropriate overgeneralization of a happy or joyful state to situations that are inherently distressing and painful. It invalidates one’s emotions and experiences, making them feel guilty, alone, misunderstood, and/or shameful. It has the potential to worsen symptoms and increase social withdrawal. 

Refrain from saying things like:

  • “Think positive. Don’t be so negative. If you think happy thoughts, you’ll be happier.” 
  • “Be grateful - you have so much going for you!”
  • “At least…” 
  • “I know exactly how you feel.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason. God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
  • “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Things aren’t that bad.” 
  • “You’re overreacting.”
  • “Hang in there. It will pass.”

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.