In general, it’s better to say something than to say nothing at all. When I was in middle school, I didn’t understand this. I saw friends struggling in the sixth and seventh grade and I froze. I figured that if I said anything to them, they’d be triggered (this, before “triggered” was such a buzzword) or get mad at me for bringing it up, as if I’d be reminding them of their pain. Most centrally, I had no idea what to say.
I did know, though, that when I noticed a close friend’s cutting scars in eighth grade, I needed to report it straight to our middle school guidance counselor. While I was frozen in-person with this friend, I’d been raised with a “see something, say something” attitude. Plus, I was self harming, too. It felt almost as if I was getting myself help without actually having to stop. That’s for another day…
Ultimately, it’s best to find a way to merge these two attitudes (reporting versus facing head-on) in a way that maintains your own health and boundaries. If you notice that a friend is struggling, you may want to jump in and help them, and you may or may not know how to do so. A combination of listening, comforting, and assertively getting them access to help is likely the best concoction of solutions on your end, but there are also some things that you could say that would likely end up being more annoying, painful, or harmful than not saying anything. In my experience, there are a couple of common big ones to avoid.
1.) I know exactly how you feel.
No, you don’t. It’s as simple as that. You may be diagnosed with the same issue. You may relate to what the person who’s explaining their struggle is saying. The level of relation may be too high not to say something, you’re sure of it! But you never know exactly the struggle that someone else is going through. Saying so may come across as pretty invalidating.
It’s the same concept as if you’re talking to someone who’s lost a loved one. Common lore tells you not to say that you totally get the other person’s grief. It’s because you don’t, plain and simple. You didn’t lose Bobby, Joe, Barbara or Jane. You aren’t simultaneously grappling with the same memories of a life taken from you: swinging on swing-sets, birthday parties, funny quotes. You can’t possibly get inside the griever’s head.
It’s a similar concept to stick to when talking to mentally ill folks. You don’t know the exact circumstances that led to their pain, and you certainly haven’t lived through every minute detail of it. You were born into a different body, which means your body and brain digest occurrences differently. Breaking up with a partner may feel upsetting but recoverable to you, but to someone with certain disorders, this seems like the actual end of the world, and you won’t be able to understand what that “end of the world” is like. You may sometimes cringe at bad memories, but you can’t know the deep pain and panic that goes into a flashback or a trauma nightmare. Even if you’ve suffered through your own trauma, it will never be exactly the same, nor will it affect you the same way.
So, how does this come across to the mentally ill person you’re saying it to? When it’s said to me, I internally balk. All I’m trying to do is explain my predicament, and you’re making it all about your own separate thing? It comes across as if you’re attempting to redirect the conversation to be about your own struggles which, while valid in their own right, are not going to create a comforting severity contest, the likes of which have never before occurred. Not once.
All you are tasked with when someone discloses a struggle to you is listening. You can, and perhaps should, say comforting and supportive things. However, the biggest and most important thing you can do is keep your ears wide open and actively listen. Follow the explanation intently. Nod and make noises indicative of paying attention. Ask questions that indicate deep engagement. Validate the difficulty of what’s being described to you.
Now, if you feel it would be appropriate to insert that you’ve had a similar experience, doing so may be a good idea. I’ve found great solace in knowing that someone I’m disclosing information to has a basic degree of knowledge about the subject, perhaps in order to engage with me more meaningfully. However, the conversation isn’t’ just about you, this time around. Mention, then use it as a tool for listening and empathetically discussing.
“I’ve been through something similar.”
“I know how hard __ must be, in particular.”
“When I went through ___, this is the advice I got…”
2.) Come to me if you ever want to self harm / feel suicidal!
Not only have I seen this be said to lots of folks my age (the curse of attending an unsupportive emotional special needs school), but it was said to me by someone I was in a relationship with. I know it’s said with care in mind, but it is a toxic message in two distinct ways and ends up doing much more harm than good.
First of all, you have no idea how to stop them from self harming or being suicidal! You have never been trained in mental health or counseling, you have no formal practice in doing it. There are ways for you to support your friend that do not involve making yourself the number one go-to for self harm and suicidality. The people in self injurious folks’ lives who should be contacted first are doctors and family, not peers. Plus, when you inevitably can’t provide meaningful support in these situations (because of course you can’t, you don’t have the experience/education!), the person you were trying to help may end up feeling disappointed and dissatisfied in a moment when it’s crucial they not feel any worse. If you really want to be there for your friend, let them know that you’d be there for them if they ever wanted to vent or talk candidly about their experiences. That way, they can come to you in a much less high risk moment.
Second of all, and just as importantly, this role takes a toll on you. Now, you’re on the phone list when another human being wants to take a razor to themselves or commit suicide. What a daunting and terrifying task! Even if you’ve never been saddled with mental health issues, this is an enormous burden to take on. Mentally ill people are not burdens, but being someone’s lifeline when you aren’t trained to do so is. I know I’ve fallen into both roles to varying degrees, and it is absolutely sapping. Trying to take care of another entire person’s existence, on top of your budding own, is not called for. In the end, it will drain and frustrate both you and the person you’re trying to be there for. Leave it to the professionals!
Speaking of the professionals, make sure that when a friend discloses to you that they are self harming or suicidal, you take appropriate steps to alert a parent, counselor, or any other trusted or trained adult. Everyone deserves expert help and that is a responsibility that comes with someone disclosing to you their self harming practices or suicidality.
“If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here for you.”
“I don’t want to see you hurt. Do you have a therapist you can call?”
“Remember that Logic song? Here’s a number you can call.”
General Suicide: 1-800-273-8255