When it comes to mental health, everyone likes to think they’re an expert.
Offering advice on subjects they don’t really understand. Invalidating the experiences of people who actually live with a disorder.
So many of us have been on the receiving end of some really terrible advice regarding our mental health, but more often than you would think, this flawed advice comes from the actual experts – medical and mental health professionals.
Today, I’m going to tell you about four terrible pieces of advice that these “experts” have given me over the years.
Before I go on, I want to clarify that I have had contact with many medical and mental health professionals in my lifetime, and the majority of them have been kind, caring, capable, and supportive. I am incredibly grateful for our NHS and the people who make it what it is. These examples do not represent the majority, but the fact they happened (and still happen) needs to be addressed.
*Trigger warning*: In this piece, I discuss self-harm and suicide. If these topics are likely to upset or trigger you, please do not read any further.
“You don’t have anything to be depressed about.”
I’m sure many of us have been subjected to this invalidating comment at some point. Unfortunately for me, my first encounter with this mindset came from the GP I reluctantly visited at age 16 to seek help for my severe depression. I had been self-harming for four years by that point and my mental health issues were starting to take a toll on my life; my grades were suffering, I’d lost most of my friends, and I was deeply, deeply unhappy. On the one hand, the GP with whom I had an appointment seemed to really care. He let the appointment run for 45 minutes as I slowly divulged the dark thoughts in my head. He asked lots of questions and I felt like he was taking me seriously. Then, as the appointment drew to a close, he said “Anyway, you don’t have anything to be depressed about. You live in a nice house, you have a nice family… Think about that instead.” I felt deflated. I was sent off with a book about depression to read and that was it. Honestly, I felt like an idiot. Like I had made a big deal about nothing and I should just shut up and live with it. As such, my mental health continued to decline, and things got much, much worse.
“Some people are just negative and need to accept it.”
Many years later, I was summoned to a medication review with a different GP at a different practice. I was under the community mental health team and had been officially diagnosed by a psychiatrist with Borderline Personality Disorder. I was undergoing treatment and my medication had been prescribed by the psychiatrist. However, because my repeat prescription went through my GP surgery, they insisted on doing an additional medication review with me. So I went in.
The GP asked me a few questions; did I feel like the medication was working, did I have any side-effects, and so on. I mentioned that the psychiatrist had reassured me that my dosage could be increased if I felt it wasn’t effective enough. He looked at me with a smirk and said “You know there’s no magic pill. Some people don’t really have mental health problems. Some people are just negative and need to accept it.”
After everything that I’d been through – the struggle to get seen by a psychiatrist, the process of getting a diagnosis, getting into treatment, hell, keeping myself alive – his words felt like a punch in the stomach. I felt invalidated all over again; like I was somehow making up everything I was going through, that I was “faking” being ill. I left the review and burst into tears.
Luckily, I was able to discuss the event with my CPN at the time. She was horrified by this GP’s behaviour and we talked through my distress. When I was feeling a bit stronger, I left anonymous feedback about this GP with the practice manager, in the hope that his behaviour would be challenged and this wouldn’t happen to anyone else who might not have the back-up support of a CPN like I did. I realise this was wishful thinking, but at least I felt like I’d done what I could.
“Don’t do it again.”
This one was a doctor in the hospital, speaking to me after I was treated for an intentional overdose of prescription medication. I was lying in a hospital bed feeling embarrassed, vulnerable, and suicidal. They had run several tests on me to make sure I hadn’t done any serious damage to my internal organs – fortunately, I had not. As he was finishing up explaining the results of the tests to me, he concluded with “You’re lucky this time. Don’t do it again.”
Okay, so I get it – he’s not exactly going to tell me I’m fine and that I can go off and attempt again. But the condescending and offhand way he told me to just “not do it again” made me feel completely invalidated. I felt like he was telling me that my suicide attempt was a choice I willingly made. Technically, yes, I made the choice. But the choice was made by a brain that wasn’t functioning correctly. It’s not as simple as “don’t do it again”, I’m going to need more support than that.
It makes me think of a quote from Girl, Interrupted: “I didn’t try to kill myself. I was trying to make the shit stop.” People who attempt or complete suicide don’t want to die, they’ve just exhausted their capacity to deal with the pain.
“Just hang in there.”
My final example of terrible advice comes from a member of the Crisis Team. I’m sure many of you at this point are nodding your heads, well aware of the “sterling advice” the Crisis Team often has to offer.
On this occasion, I was experiencing severe distress. I felt suicidal and I needed help. I asked my partner at the time to ring the Crisis Team for me because I couldn’t face ringing them myself. So they did that for me, but after being on the phone for a minute or so, I could see them getting frustrated with the person at the end of the line. Reluctantly, I took the phone. I tried to explain what was going on, but the man on the phone kept speaking over me. He wasn’t really listening to what I was saying and was obviously trying to get me off the phone as quickly as possible.
The final straw came when he said, “Just hang in there.” At that point, I just shut down. I realised he wasn’t going to help me. I hung up and unfortunately resorted to self-harm as a means of venting my pain.
As I said at the start, these examples do not represent the majority.
Throughout my years of interaction with medical and mental health professionals, I’ve mostly encountered understanding, patient, considerate individuals.
However, the problem is that this kind of dismissive, condescending advice isn’t a thing of the past. It happens today. It’s happening now. And the dangerous part is that unlike unsolicited advice from random “experts” online, these experts are the ones we trust and turn to when we’re in a bad place – a potentially life-threatening place.
Professionals are only human. They’re going to make mistakes, just like anyone else. But as more of us educate ourselves on the best ways to support people with mental health issues, it’s only reasonable to expect that professionals join us in that self-education. These flippant, unhelpful comments can have horrific consequences and as such, they should definitely be challenged.
If you are unhappy with the behaviour of a medical/mental health professional or you have concerns about your standard of care, you can contact your local Patient Advice and Liaison Services for assistance.
What is the worst piece of advice you’ve received about mental health or mental illness? Let me know in the comments.