Avoid Going Sideways – Asking the Right Mental Health Questions

Have you ever been asked some of the most inappropriate, odd, or unnerving questions about your mental illness or disorder? Maybe you have or haven’t because the answer to this question is subjective and based on perception.  There’s a chance, the person asking the question just isn’t aware of what questions are appropriate or inappropriate.  Although a lack of mental health awareness can lead to misperceptions and ambiguity, below are my top ten questions or comments that I wouldn’t recommend asking or saying to your friends and family members diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder; followed by a list of questions that might be deemed more appropriate.

  1. “I hope you’re 100% by tomorrow”

(This just doesn’t work because 100% doesn’t exist in any context excluding the world of academics.  This comment may cause resentment because it can come across as having a nonchalant attitude)

  1. “Are you going to eat all of that?”

(This one is highly inappropriate in general, but anyone who has struggled with their weight, an eating disorder, or side effects of a medication can understand how this question can trigger past traumas, self-doubt, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and past eating disorders; bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, etc.)

  1. “Can I have one of your anti-anxiety pills? Today was a rough day”

(This is another obvious no-no, but does happen.  This question/comment comes across as snide and hurtful.  Most importantly, it’s dangerous to take medication that has not been prescribed to you.)

  1. “Why are you being so dramatic?”

(This is an unfortunate question or comment to make.  There are many people who still think manic and depressive episodes are a choice and can be controlled.  This isn’t true at all.  This is an extremely hurtful comment because most people associate the word “drama” with acting in a theatrical manner.  People with mental illnesses/disorders are not acting.)

  1. “So, what do you think is wrong with you?”

(By definition, the word “wrong” can mean a mistake.  People with a mental illness/disorder are not mistakes.)

  1. “Do you ever wonder what it’s like to live without a mental illness?”

(Most likely not because everyone has challenges they must face in life and it’s never okay to think any challenge is greater than or less than my own. Do you ever wonder what it is like to live with a mental illness?)

  1. “I heard your medication has a lot of side effects, especially weight gain.”

(This comment creates unnecessary or elevated anxiety, fear, and rumination about taking a new medication.)

  1. “If you miss taking a dose, what will happen?”

(This can be misperceived because the question can imply that an individual will turn into a Jekyll and Hyde type character if a dose of medication is missed.  The reality of the situation is that a missed dose of any medication can happen to anyone.  Everyone manages hectic lives full of familial and work obligations causing delayed or missed medical treatments.  No one is exempt from missing a dose of medication.  The focus should be on scheduling reminders on your phone, computer, or any calendar available to ensure receiving medical treatment is a priority.

  1. “When will you start feeling better?”

(Mental illnesses are a lifelong healing and recovery process. There’s no definitive start and stop.)

  1. Do not stare.

(This is not a question or comment, but it’s important to mention. Some people with a mental illness or disorder have anxiety to some degree and already feel like everyone is judging and being critical.  When you stare, you are increasing anxiety levels.  If you are staring because you are noticing symptoms, different behaviors, abrupt weight fluctuations; then try to speak with him/her in private at an appropriate time.  Remember, staring is not okay. Non-verbal communication can be more harmful than verbal communication.)

It’s ok to be curious and ask questions because a strong and healthy support system is a key component of the recovery process. However, it’s possible the wording of the question can be misperceived. Try to be mindful of your body language, tone, and choice of words. All can lead to misunderstandings, negative feelings, mistrust, and embarrassment. Maybe try asking the following questions instead;

  1. How do you gauge your recovery progress because you might have some tips I could use?
  2. What lifestyle changes have you made that we can do together?
  3. What can I do to help you throughout your recovery?
  4. Where can I get more information on mental health awareness?
  5. How do you manage stressful situations and can we swap ideas?
  6. If you’re asking the question, try to put yourself in the responder’s position. Think about how you’d feel receiving and responding to a question. If you get a sense the question causes feelings of discomfort, write it down as a draft, and come back later to rewrite it after you’ve figured out what information you’re trying to gather. Sometimes it’s helpful to let things simmer before moving forward.
  7. Remember, do not stare. Ask yourself, are you staring because you are afraid you have a mental illness/disorder too?  Are you staring because you are concerned, nervous, confused, or insecure?  No matter what the answer is to these questions, staring is never okay.  Ask in private. Do not judge.

*Please note, it isn’t anyone’s responsibility to ensure the recovery process remains on track other than one’s own. These lists are from personal experiences and should not be taken as professional counseling services or medical advice. However, I hope by sharing my personal experiences others feel more comfortable asking and answering mental health awareness questions. It’s a sensitive topic, but knowledge is essential to bridging the gap between mental health stigmas and the truth.

Be well!

© 2018 Heidi Sullivan-Inyama

Picture sponsored by Pixaby

47 thoughts on “Avoid Going Sideways – Asking the Right Mental Health Questions

    • bravingmentalillness says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. Thanks for the support too! I’m hoping anything I post will inspire all that I talk about, but also empathy and sensitivity within those who don’t quite understand mental illnesses. Thanks again😊

  1. I love this post. I also suffer from depression and anxiety. I have created a wellness / lifestyle blog, that emphasized (or will emphasize) mental health issues. I really want to issue resources and support services.

    • bravingmentalillness says:

      Hi Rachel, thanks for the kind words. I’m happy to hear your wellness blog will incorporate mental health too. So often, it’s left out or last to be discussed. I’ll check out your blog!! 😊

    • bravingmentalillness says:

      Hi Rachel, I just saw your self-care posts. These are great. Just what I’m talking about too. Love it. Somehow I missed these. Thanks for sharing 😊

  2. I very much appreciate your post! It seems the common thread is a desire to be engaged with the other person. Making an effort to understand and share in the process means something more than coming off as purely curious or intrusive with your question. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • bravingmentalillness says:

      Hi Ryan! Thanks for visiting my blog, taking the time to read, and respond to my post. Yes indeed, engaging with the intent of learning with an open mind is the purpose of this blog and post. I look forward to reading more of your posts! Have a great day😀

  3. Dear Inyama, I’ll be real and raw here. This is a great post and taken from personal experience is always awesome. I really wish… Now my real and raw: Those who really have to read such posts hardly do, if they do maybe they don’t give a damn and am getting tired. Take my personal case, my immediate family are in denial, were in denial of my brother’s bipolar disorder until he died and they blamed it on epilepsy (which can lead to a mental illness no doubt but…), and also blamed it on withcraft and etc etc. Now, I have PTSD and when am down they say I have an attitude. With my RA (RHUMATOID ARTHRITIS), I seem to get more sympathy, empathy and ‘approrpriate’ questions, remarks etc. Fortunately I now know who cares most if I live or not: Me, my sons, my guardian angel and probably my parents (more for the pain and grieve of losing another child)…hope my comment not so off, these past days/weeks have been tough for me

    • Hi Friend, you never have to apologize for speaking your truths and feelings on this blog. This blog is about honesty, expression, openness, awareness, educational purposes, and most importantly a safe place to conduct open dialogue. I understand your frustration. There are a lot of social and cultural stigmas that you and most people are facing. You might be right, that those who need to read this, won’t. However, my purpose is to rise above that group of people and hopefully reach those who are ready to learn and evolve. I am so sorry to hear about your brother and how you were/are treated. Please join me on a journey of ascension as we promote mental health awareness💜😊

        • bravingmentalillness says:

          Yes you are full in!!! You are truly a blessing. It does sometimes! Yes, self-care is extremely important. In my opinion, self-care isn’t always about taking naps or meditating, it’s just simply doing what you love.

          • Doing what you love, yes that expresses you and you don’t bottle things up for fear of ‘hurting or being/seen unconventional’ . That’s why I have kept at blogging the way I do for 4 years, stigmatizing stigma and and not writing fiction regardless of how many read, like or follow. I have a little flu and itchy cough right now but am definitely on a self care prescription lol

            • bravingmentalillness says:

              Exactly!!! Oh geez… sorry to hear about the flu. Yes in that case self-care prescription is a must 😀

                • bravingmentalillness says:

                  Hi Friend. I didn’t see a contact note in my email, but I’ll check. Thanks for letting me know . I just went to your site. I see, it disappeared. It’s ok no worries. You know I am always thinking of you😀

              • Well, flu was nothing compared to articulations near freeze last night. Today, I stayed grounded practically in bed all day. Still am, but feeling much better after a combined natural therapy and meds

  4. Well written. One big statement I used to hate was, “oh my gosh, you’re so skinny!” I was get really offended because people assumed that being skinny was by choice. When it actually, it was because I was so depressed, I was eating only once a day. So, the next person who said it, I said back, “oh wow, you’re so fat!” Of course they became offended because calling someone fat is rude. But I think calling someone skinny is just as offensive. This is a great example of why we shouldn’t assume what people are going through and should be a bit more sensitive when asking questions or making statements. By the way, the people who would ask me that are the people who knew that depression affected my eating habits. Great post. Thank you for bringing awareness

  5. Hi! Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my post. Yes, non-verbal communication is sometimes more effective than verbal communication so I try to be mindful of my facial expression when I’m engaged in face-to-face conversations. Exactly, the healing process is a lifelong journey and my hope is to educate more people that healing takes time and in regards to mental illnesses/disorders, there isn’t a start/stop definitive time frame. Patience is essential and expect some bumps in the road. Perfection does not exist. I might be feeling or great for months, but that will not determine how I might feel afterward. Mental illnesses/disorders can be unpredictable. Thanks again for your support. This discussion is a necessity! We need to break global stigmatization.

  6. Great post! Lots of important reminders. I particularly liked your comment about how non-verbals can be worse than verbal comments. Especially with anxiety, at least when you ask a question or make a comment it is something I can hear directly and work to process. When a lot is said with silence, it remains very vague and it leads me to my own (often black-and-white, catastrophized) conclusions. Also loved #9. There are many days I do feel better, but it comes in waves. Sometimes I feel great, others not so much. It’s important that healing is not characterized as linear, but that people realize there are setbacks.

    • You’re welcome and you make a valid point. My goal is to encourage a level of understanding within personal and professional lives. In doing so, more people can be understood and helped. I speak to my son on a daily basis and encourage open dialogue, sharing thoughts, and feelings. Openness is essential to mental health stability. Trust is as well. Thank you for reading and responding.

  7. I heard #4 from my mom a lot when I was a child (pre-diagnosis). Because of that, I felt that I couldn’t trust my parents with how I my feelings because they’d either dismiss it as being dramatic, or not believe me.

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