Often when I tell a friend or relative that I am feeling depressed, anxious or hypomanic, their first question is, “Why?“. While I am aware that this question usually comes from a place of concern, and a want to fix the situation, “Why?” is possibly the most unhelpful question you can ask someone with a mental illness. And there are several reasons for this.
1. Implied Assumption: The first reason being the implied assumption that mental illness symptoms are always caused by external, obvious triggers. While this is sometimes the case, it is not always, and by asking “Why“, you may be inadvertently reinforcing the insecurity and concern I harbour about the way that I am feeling. Try to accept that sometimes (quite often, in fact), symptoms of mental illness just are.
2. Natural Feelings v Mental Illness Symptoms: The question of “Why?” also attempts to bring mental illness and the symptoms – which cannot always be logically, rationally, objectively explained – into the realm of regular thoughts and feelings. Yes, everyone feels sad and worries sometimes, but depression, anxiety, etc are defined as mental illnesses because they are not merely regular, normal, rational thoughts and feelings. Trying to make them so only undermines the seriousness and effect the illness has on me as an individual.
3. Requires Justification: When you ask “why?” you are asking me to justify why a supposedly objectively, miniscule, unimportant or invisible thing can affect me the way that it does. There is an automatic comparison going on between what you, or a ‘normal’ person’s, reaction might be. It also limits the possibility for further discussion, as there is a connotation of ‘fault’ associated with the question “Why ?“ , which puts the ball in my court to justify not only my thoughts, feelings and behaviors, but myself as a person, to you.
It’s also important to remember that it is not the trigger that sets off an episode, but the way in which we interpret and think about that trigger. So, instead of assuming that one obvious, tangible reason is at fault for my depression, anxiety or hypomania, here are some other questions you can try asking:
“Was there anything in particular that made you feel that way?” In many ways, this is the alternative to “Why“; it enables you to establish if perhaps there is a particular situational trigger without limiting the conversation by assuming that there is one.
“Have you been feeling this way for long?” This question is very open, and will allow me an opportunity to reflect on both the length and severity of the feelings, which I may not have done until this point. This can also be a good indicator as to whether I may need to seek professional help.
“How do you think you are coping with these feelings at the moment?” This question will give me an opportunity to tell you how severe my feelings are, and what I have tried, and perhaps what has worked. It will also give you further indication as to whether I need to seek professional help, or whether you feel that you may assist me in dealing with my emotions.
- Don’t ask “Why?”; don’t assume mental illness symptoms are as simple as the feelings and thoughts that occur in a healthy mind state.
- Be curious without being overly probing.
- Guide without taking control of the conversation.
- Facilitate recovery and understanding rather than trying to take over and fix everything.
- While thoughts may not necessarily represent truth, feelings are real.
- Gently prompt to challenge some of the assumed, automatic and negative thoughts.
- Be sincere and accepting of their feelings.
- Be responsive and reassuring.
“Why” is a dangerous word because it judges, it assumes, it limits, it confines and it trivialises. Find other, better ways to communicate with the people you love and who need your support.