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Empathetic Communication With Mental Illness

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Kelli Barnes

Many of us are touched by mental illness, often unknowingly. When someone we love has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, stigma, fear, and a lack of information associated with mental illness can hinder our ability to know exactly what to say. When a loved one reveals their diagnosis, it can be difficult to navigate, but it is not impossible. In fact, this moment can be a time for you to learn more about them. While you may not be able to relate to their experience, remaining present and genuine during their time of need is imperative. Here are some ways to comfort a friend or family with a mental illness and things to avoid.


• Be An Active Listener

Active listening is more than just hearing. Active listening is communication that requires the listening party to fully engage, concentrate, understand, and respond appropriately to what an individual is saying. Active listening differs from reflective listening, a technique where the listener is not engaged and only repeats back to the speaker what they have heard. Paraphrasing is the key to showing that you understand; you should not be merely parroting the speaker. This communication style can result in getting people to become open, build trust, and create comfort. One of our largest communication issues is that we don’t listen to understand; we listen to reply. While the speaker is talking, we spend time crafting our next response instead of truly listening.

• Display Unconditional Positivity

People with mental illness may already feel a lack of respect, decreased motivation, an inferiority complex, low self-esteem and self-worth, and loneliness. You may have a chance to influence these negative feelings by displaying positivity and concern for the individual. Showing love, kindness, and empathy signals to them your care and can give them the hope, understanding, and support that they need in recovery.

• Continue to Discuss Other Topics

While checking on the individual’s well-being, be sure that the mental illness does not have to change the entire relationship between you and the other person. Don’t let the disorder issue become the main focus of your relationship. As a way to continue normalcy, continue to discuss things that are of interest to both of you, start a new hobby together, or just relax and enjoy each other’s company.


• Make Dismissive Comments

Make dismissive commentary such as “snap out of it” “get yourself together” or “it will pass.” These types of comments can make the person feel worse, or even guilty. Such comments do not build up a person suffering from a mental disorder but often make that individual feel more withdrawn and ashamed of their feelings. These comments also insinuate that the person is somehow at fault and “snapping out of it” is up to them.

• Minimize their Experience

Pointing out that “others have it worse” is trivializing and offensive to the individual. This person feels as if they are working hard to try to be happy. Saying comments that tell them that others have it way worse dismisses their feelings and causes feelings of shame and guilt.

• Avoid the Person

During times of illness, a great support system can make a difference in recovery. Showing compassion, love, and concern could greatly benefit a person who feels lonely and alienated because of their illness.

• Avoid Discussing Self-harm and Suicide

Usually, when people discuss suicide or self-harming techniques, they are looking for help and support. Even if the person is discussing suicide, that individual may not be ready to end his or her life. Instead, they may be expressing feelings of being overwhelmed, frustrated, or abandoned. However, be knowledgeable of mental health professionals and even hotlines to call if you fear the ill person may harm themselves. Some essential questions to ask a person expressing the desire to end their life are: Do you have a plan? Do you have access to {their weapon of choice}? When do you plan to do this? These questions will give you, and health professionals a clearer picture of if the person is merely thinking about suicide or actively making plans.

Remember to always be empathetic, compassionate, and understanding of an individual with a mental disorder. As well as caring for the person suffering from mental illness, be sure to implement self-care routines as well. Talking to others in a similar situation might be beneficial.


Cognitive Healing


The information contained in blog posts does not necessarily reflect the views of Solace Counseling and Consulting LLC. This blog is the opinion of an individual and is not to be construed as professional advice, psychological diagnosis, or a professional relationship between the reader and the writer. Blogs are intended only to be used by consumers in search of general interest information pertaining to mental health, relationships, counseling, and related topics. Content on this website is not intended to replace or serve as a substitute for professional consultation or service. If you require help with mental health issues please contact a licensed therapist or psychiatrist in your area. If you are experiencing an emergency, head to your nearest emergency room or call 911. The posts on this website are copyright of Solace Counseling and Consulting LLC and their writers (unless otherwise sourced). They can be re-blogged or re-posted on social media but cannot be reproduced or uploaded without permission.