A strange phenomenon I’ve noticed when I tell people about my mental illness is that they instantly start telling me what to do about it. It usually starts with me saying, “Sorry I’ve been out of it lately — my depression’s been bad again,” and ends with them asking what medications I’ve been taking and telling me I ought to try yoga.

In my experience, this response is very specific to mental illness. When someone tells you they have diabetes, your initial reaction isn’t, “Have you tried taking insulin?” Because chances are, if they have a diagnosis, they’re doing something about it, and the person telling them what to do is a medical professional.

So what is it about mental health that makes everybody think they’re an expert?

Nobody thinks that scraping their knee qualifies them to tell someone else how to cast a broken leg, but people seem to think that experiencing a range of human emotion qualifies them to give advice about mental illnesses. I think this has something to do with how we use certain terms colloquially. In normal conversation, “I’m so OCD” is a way to describe yourself as neat and organized. It’s acceptable to respond to disappointment by saying, “I’m so depressed,” and someone acting moody might be labeled “so bipolar.” As a result, it can be difficult to talk about mental illness because casual conversation is a place where its severity is drastically downplayed. (As a general rule, if you can add the word “so” in front of the mental illness, it’s probably not being used in the appropriate context.)

When I say I’m depressed and someone tells me they’re also depressed because we lost the basketball game the other night, it’s hard to feel heard and understood. I’m not sure if it’s possible to truly understand how someone with a mental illness feels without personally having that illness. I do know, however, that it is possible to extend sympathy to someone who is hurting even if you don’t understand the depth of the hurt.

It’s important to keep in mind that the way to express sympathy isn’t by telling someone how he or she ought to cure his or her illness. The kind of inexpert medical advice I have personally received ranges from “you’ll improve with medications and therapy” to “just smile.” I don’t believe these people actually think they’re qualified psychologists. I think sometimes they just don’t know how else to respond. Although the social climate surrounding mental illness seems to be improving, it’s still clear that by telling people about my struggles, I’m opening a door that ought not to be opened. It makes people uncomfortable. The unspoken rule is that we don’t talk about our own mental illnesses because the topic falls into a category that is private and extremely personal. Unfortunately, when we don’t talk about mental illness that often, other people don’t get much practice responding appropriately to open conversations about it.

I truly believe that people mean well when they give me unsolicited advice about how to handle my depression and anxiety. The people I trust enough to talk to are people who care about me. Even so, when someone tells me to go try getting more sleep or to go to yoga, it’s just reductive. I enjoy yoga as much as the next person, but when people suggest I try something extremely simple to fix a problem that weighs on me constantly, it feels like they’re not taking me seriously. It feels more like they’re suggesting I downward dog my way out of a coma.

There is evidence supporting meditation and mindfulness as exercises for good mental hygiene, so the yoga thing is not technically bad advice. It’s just that when I want to talk about my mental health, I’m not seeking medical advice at all. I’m looking to talk to a friend about how I feel, because it’s the only way I know how to externalize what can be a very lonely experience. It’s a deeply personal struggle that can lead to important people in my life feeling shut out, and I’m actively working on letting people in.

So when I come to you to talk about my mental health, realize it’s because I trust you. I’m not asking you for the sound advice of a licensed clinician (I pay someone else a lot of money for that). It’s OK to feel awkward, and it’s OK to say the wrong thing. Just let me know that you care and that you really hear me.

And for the love of God, stop telling me to go to yoga.

Sydney Hartle can be reached at hartles@umich.edu.

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