7 Things Not to Say to Someone in Crisis

Worth Living Ambassador Jessie Fawcett

Hello, my name is Jessie and I’m a first-year student attending Ryerson University to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work. I am dedicated to being able to work in a juvenile detention centre in order to help aid youths who are struggling with their own lives. Mental health has always had a huge impact on my life and I’m finally starting to be able to share my story in hopes to help others who are also struggling with the same issues as well as shedding some light onto mental health.

7 Things Not to Say to Someone in Crisis

There are many things that people say to others that suffer from mental illness in which they have absolutely no idea how much damage they could actually be causing. It’s fine to think that you’re helping someone in need but to actually know what and what not to say to someone in crisis is extremely important. Here is a list of things that you shouldn’t say to someone in crisis and things to replace them with instead:

Don’t tell me to calm down.

When someone is having a panic attack or a manic episode, they can’t help but explode. It feels like it’s their only option. I know from personal experiences, telling me to “calm down” is an ignorant thing to say no matter how “nice” you were trying to be. If it was as simple as just “calming down” don’t you think we would? How can a person calm down if they think that their entire world is crashing down from under them? Let me use an analogy. If your arm was on fire and the pain was seeping through your flesh and all you could do was panic and scream and someone came up to you and said “just calm down” how would that make you feel? Angry or frustrated, right? It would be painful wouldn’t it? So, perhaps instead of telling someone to calm down, ask them what they need. Maybe try distracting them or help them focus on a good memory. It really depends on the situation. Think before you speak.

Don’t tell me to get over it.

Ah yes, the dreaded “get over it” saying. Tell me, who defines how quickly a person should “get over” something? If something hurts, it hurts. Do not argue with a person who is in pain. It is condescending, to say the least.  See, what people don’t realize is that people who struggle with certain types of mental illness can easily be triggered. Speaking on a personal note, I am extremely sensitive. So sensitive in fact, that if someone changes their tone of voice with me there is a high possibility that I will start to cry. It’s not for attention, it’s not because I’m being overdramatic. It’s because I have little control over what my brain tells me to get upset about. For instance, in a situation where someone got angry with me, maybe I would be quite hurt by what had happened between us. Even if the issue at hand seems minor, do not tell me to “get over it, it happened a while ago” because it just makes us feel like sharing our pain is pointless and that no one cares. You have no idea how often we already think we’re overreacting. “Get over it” is not helpful. Instead, try saying something like “what is bothering you the most about this situation? What can we do to make it better?” That way they feel acknowledged and that you care.

Don’t tell me that other people have it worse than I do.

Yeah, we get it. There are people out there who have been and are going through “much worse things” in comparison to what we’re struggling with. Why is it okay to discount someone’s feelings just because there are people out there that “have it worse”? Regardless of who’s struggling with what and why they’re struggling it doesn’t change the fact that what we’re going through still affects us. Don’t compare my struggles with someone else’s because what you’re really doing is comparing oranges to apples. We’re all unique people and deal with things differently. Something that hurts me at an 8 on a scale from 1-10 could hurt someone else at only a 4. We all react to things differently. Speaking on my own behalf, I already feel guilty enough as it is when I’m upset about something. I usually already think that people have it much worse than I do, so hearing you say it does not help matters. Maybe try saying something like, “you’re not alone,” or “I’m here for you.” That way, you’re not discounting anything and you’re letting them know that they have a support system.

Don’t tell me that it’s not a big deal.

So, tell me. What is and is not a big deal? What categorizes something as being a “bigger deal” than others? If someone in your family dies, yes that is a big deal. Nobody would argue with that. But, what if you lose yourself? What do I mean by this? Well, I can’t speak on behalf of everyone suffering from depression, but I can speak on behalf of myself. Some days, for no particular reason, I lose a part of me. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t always know why I lost it. But, it is this feeling in me that something is very wrong, and I become distraught over it. Sometimes, when someone asks me what’s wrong, I will honestly answer them with “I don’t know.” But other times, when I don’t know what’s wrong, I usually just reply with what I think could be bothering me. Like a bad grade perhaps. Maybe to you, receiving a bad grade “isn’t a big deal”, and that there will be other grades to make up for it. But, like I mentioned earlier, somethings can hit harder than others. What may not seem like “a big deal” to you could be seen as the end of the world to others. Please, stop comparing what and how something affects you with how it could affect other people. Instead of saying “it’s not a big deal” try asking why it hurts so bad and what are some ways to help alleviate that pain. That way you’re not disregarding their feelings even if you don’t think it’s “a big deal.”

Don’t tell me to just ignore it.

Honestly, I think this should be common sense by now. Why on earth would you tell someone to just ignore their pain or panic? There is obviously a reason as to why they’re feelings that way. How do you turn a light off when you can’t find the switch? Feeling pain or panic is not something we have control over. If we did have control over it, why wouldn’t we choose to turn the switch off? Telling someone to “just ignore it” is actually super dangerous. I know for myself, I ignored my symptoms for years. I didn’t think they mattered and that the problem would go away by itself. Life, just doesn’t work like that. I’m going to use another analogy again. What if you had a bleeding gash on your hand that wouldn’t stop? Obviously, you’d be freaking out. And what if someone just told you to ignore it? Um, hello?! How can I ignore it if it hurts and it is right in front of me? That’s how it feels for someone in crisis. If something hurts or is scaring us, it will absolutely be all that we can think about and panic over. There is no point in telling someone to just ignore it. Perhaps, instead of telling them to ignore it, try helping them think of something else if that’s really what you believe will work best. That way you’re distracting them from what they’re panicking over at the same time as helping them “ignore” what is going on.

Don’t touch me unless I ask you to.

This is a big one. Yes, people have good intentions when they go to rub someone’s back, take their hand, or hug them. It’s awesome that you want to show that person physical support. However, it could make matters much worse. Nobody wants to feel suffocated. And even if you believe a hug is what the person needs, make sure you ask them first. I know that when I’m having a panic attack, I absolutely do not want anyone in my personal space. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the type of person that loves hugs. But, when I feel terrified and like I’ve lost all control, someone touching me is the last thing that I want. Respect that. If someone is panicking and you want to hold them or touch them, simply just ask them first. It’s a yes or no question. Some feel like they need physical contact and others don’t. All you can do is be there for them if they need you to be.

Don’t tell me that everything is going to be okay.

A lot of people have a hard time understanding this one. When I’m in crisis, this is about the worst thing you can say to me. I don’t want to hear that everything will be okay, I want to be okay now. If there’s one thing I have in common with other people who suffer from depression it is that we have a hard time imagining the future. The future is terrifying and seems impossible to get to. I know for myself that what comes into my mind when someone tells me that “everything will be okay” is that how do you know? How do you know things will get better? Why have people been saying that to me for years and it hadn’t gotten better? You can’t predict the future. When? When, is the angry question that came into my mind too. I’ve been waiting way too long for “things to be okay”. How about instead of saying “everything will be okay” say something like “fight for something” or “you’re strong enough to survive this.” It gives tiny ounces of hope without predicting a better future. That’s really all we want. Hope and the courage to fight. “Courage is but a small caul you keep swallowing.”  To the Bone (2017)

So, there you have it. Hopefully you’ll be able to make someone who’s in crisis feel better without making matters worse than they have to be. Remember, mental illness is very selfish, and we do believe that “it’s all about us”. It sucks, and we don’t want to think like that, but unfortunately it comes with it. Don’t make someone feel bad for being in pain.

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