Working in special education, I constantly find myself on interdisciplinary teams. One of the challenges I face is working with people who don’t have a thorough understanding of mental illnesses, so it’s my job to reach out to other staff to point out situations where they could have handled things differently — specifically, where they said the wrong thing to a student and sometimes made an already bad situation worse. Usually, it’s not ill-intentioned, and they just use a poor choice of words. Other times, they don’t realize that saying, “That sucks!” is not at all helpful and is actually a very dismissive comment. And guess who gets to spend an hour-long therapy session trying to reverse the effects of those comments?
Here are some of the awful things I’ve heard people say, why it’s not helpful, and what could be said instead.
There’s no reason to be anxious.
Well they are. They just are. I don’t have time to explain to you chemical imbalances in the brain again! And your rationalization of the matter doesn’t change it. They. Are. Anxious. Instead of invalidating them with this statement because of your inability to fully grasp the way this illness impacts them, try to show some compassion. To you, there may not seem to be a reason to be anxious, but when a person tells you they’re anxious or shows symptoms of it, saying this will only make them feel worse. It’s extremely insensitive. You don’t feel things the way they do, but that doesn’t make their triggers or feelings any less powerful. They feel this way. Period.
Say instead: I understand you’re feeling anxious. I’m here to listen and help if you want to talk it out or figure out how to get through it.
Why can’t they just come to school?
School refusal is a problem on the extreme end for students with mental illnesses. It’s one of the giveaways that a student isn’t able to cope with their anxiety, depression, etc., but it takes a while to surface as an issue. The students I work with have missed weeks even months of “regular” school before being sent to our alternative school. Our program is uniquely qualified to support their struggles, but that doesn’t mean the problem goes away just because they’re with us. Some of their problems are much more deeply rooted than a simple change of scenery can fix.
Say instead: It’s obvious that you’re still struggling with the motivation to see the potential for positive outcomes each day. Maybe we can do something to change that.
They get so worked up over nothing.
This is one of the statements that bothers me most. They’re not worked up over nothing. They’re on pins and needles all the time. Just because they’re at school, it doesn’t mean their anxiety or depression has completely subsided, not even for the day. It might just mean they scored a victory over their bed and blanket by being able to get up and get on the school bus to come here. But rest assured, by the time they get to math class, they’ve already fought so many battles you’re unaware of. So, while their meltdown over the batteries in their calculator being dead right before their test seems like an overreaction to you, to them, it’s the umpteenth overwhelming situation they found themselves in today.
Say instead: Now might be a good time to take a 5-minute break and step away from a situation that seems to be overwhelming you.
They’re in a therapeutic school, I don’t get why they’re still anxious.
They’re still anxious BECAUSE THEY HAVE AN ANXIETY DISORDER. Yes, it’s a diagnosis. Yes, it’s an illness. No, it’s not like the flu or an infection that will go away with a round of meds and a few days of bed rest. Being given accommodations to make getting an education less difficult for students with disabilities doesn’t mean the disabilities no longer impact them or that they should suddenly be cured of them. Sometimes, changing environmental factors for a person living with a mental illness is enough to help them accomplish the tasks they wouldn’t be able to do without the supports these settings provide. But that doesn’t mean their difficulties no longer exist or impact them.
Say instead: You’re in a safe place where you can express or show how you feel and access the help you need to work through it.
You were just fine yesterday.
Aaaaaaand?! So what?! Yes, that was yesterday. And today is today. If you got a migraine at work today, would you want someone to say to you, “Well, you didn’t have a migraine yesterday” and expect you to just go on with your day? Would that be comforting to you? No. It’s actually a pretty rude way for someone to respond. You’d probably have some choice words for that person and maybe a hand gesture to go with it. So, what makes it ok to say to someone whose depressive or anxious feelings are stronger today than they were yesterday? Nothing. Because it’s not ok to say.
Say instead: You seemed to cope well yesterday. Do you want to try what you did yesterday to see if that might help?
I usually have to keep my frustration with these comments to myself because I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re being shamed for their mistakes in the way they responded to these situations. But the bottom line is: there’s always a way to show support to others that is conscious and conscientious of the people and factors involved. We’ve always been told to think before we speak, and in order to do that, we have to truly listen and understand. Words have power. Use them to help others, not to hurt them.