- Sonyia Richardson, PhD, Sonyia Richardson, PhD, MSW, LCSW is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She possesses a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Curriculum and Instruction, Urban Education specialization at UNC Charlotte, a Master degree in Social Work (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill), a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology (University of North Carolina Charlotte).
While the term "gaslighting" often arises in issues of dating and relationships, it's actually pretty ubiquitous and applicable to any number of situations, including mental health. When you gaslight somebody who approaches you with their anxiety, depression, or other mental-health plight, you're essentially trying to make the conversation more comfortable for you—and worsening their emotional turmoil as a result, says Sonyia Richardson, PhD, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "It means to minimize or discredit the discomfort and pain one might have from experiencing mental health issues, and it means to subjectively pronounce that it is not real or experienced," says Dr. Richardson. In other words, you're trying to erase someone else's experience so you don't risk trodding into uncharted territory. (And, for what it's worth, you can absolutely self-gaslight, too.)
When you gaslight somebody who approaches you with their anxiety, depression, or other mental-health plight, you're essentially trying to make the conversation more comfortable for you—and worsening their emotional turmoil as a result, says social worker Sonyia Richardson, PhD.
In order to actually hear what someone's communicating and to discern what you can do to help, Dr. Richardson says the following six common (and totally unhelpful phrases) should be avoided at all costs. Then, learn four responses you can lean on instead that will actually push the conversation forward.
6 things not to say to someone with a mental-health issue when they confide in you.
1. "It will get better with time"
The saying "time heals all wounds" contains a nugget of truth, but when someone's feeling acute mental pain right here, right now, it's not exactly a productive thing to say. And worse, it implies that time is the only way to heal—and that just isn't true. "In essence, this is suggesting to just let time heal the pain but continue to suffer in the meantime. However, [the struggle] might not get better with time and may actually get worse," says Dr. Richardson.
2. "It's all in your head"
"While some mental-health struggles are a result of dysfunctional thoughts or thinking patterns, they are not necessarily the basis and cause for the mental illness," says Dr. Richardson. "Trained professionals may use strategies to help eliminate dysfunctional thoughts in order to improve functioning and behavior, but the mental-health struggle is not minimized to just a mental-health experience. Individuals experience the pain and discomfort throughout their bodies as well." In other words, it's not all in their head—and saying so will only diminish their feelings and make them feel worse.
3. "Just pray about it, and it will go away"
Prayer and spirituality can certainly be part of a mental-health practice, but writing them up as a mental-health prescription can be dismissive and short-sighted. "This phrase denotes that prayer alone will heal the person and takes away the need for them to seek professional help when needed," says Dr. Richardson.
4. "It's really not as bad as it seems"
"Everyone has their own reality and interpretation of life circumstances and dilemmas. Others may not have the same worldview regarding the situations, but it doesn't mean it's not difficult for the person," says Dr. Richardson. Again, when you tell someone that "it's not as bad as it seems," you're saying that your perspective is worth more than theirs—and that, quite frankly, sucks.
5. "Getting help is for white people"
Research shows that BIPOC people are less likely than white people to have access to mental-health services and also less likely to seek out those services. Since a whopping 86 percent of therapists are white (while only 2 percent are Black), the stigma that disproportionately exists among BIPOC people and therapy has a long and complicated history in America—and Dr. Richardson is ready for it to come to an end. "This phase diminishes the need and value of counseling services for individuals of color who may be dealing with mental-health struggles," she says. "It might be helpful to get them connected to a culturally responsive counselor instead who understands their shared lived experiences."
6. "You're just going through a difficult time"
"Some people believe that mental health struggles are only attributed to situational circumstances and do not affirm the biology of mental illness," says Dr. Richardson. In reality, said "difficult time" will only stretch farther into the future if your friend listens to your suggestion to wait it out. So, don't gaslight someone you love by chalking it up to having a bad week, month, or year.
The 4 phrases to say instead when someone talks to you about their mental health
The gaslighting phrases above all share one thing in common: They shut down the person in front of you rather than propelling the heart-to-heart forward. To effectively offer support, Dr. Richardson recommends using a response that prompts the person to open up more, or points them in the direction of someone with whom they can continue the conversation with in a safe space. She suggests flipping the script, saying something along the lines of the following four responses:
- "It seems like this time is different for you."
- "I'm wondering if it might be helpful to speak with someone about what you're experiencing."
- "I'm sure it may seem unbearable right now."
- "Many people swear by their counselor and say it works."
Then, just listen.
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