We Shouldn’t make Exceptions For Family When Talking About Mental Health

Family members shouldn’t be given a free pass when they make stigmatising comments about mental illness.

There’s always one isn’t there? Sometimes there’s two or more. I’m talking about family and that person who makes inappropriate statements. It can be super awkward when you live with a mental illness and that individual starts saying something wildly out of line.

I had this particular joy recently. A certain extended family member started talking about politics. Every politician they disagreed with was suddenly ‘mentally ill.’ Then they moved onto someone they were having a dispute with, who also in their eyes, was ‘mentally ill.’ They kept using this term over and over again. This person was ‘evil’ they were ‘nasty’ and many other wonderfully negative comments. They were associating mental illness with everything negative they saw in a person. I sat there in silence. Should I say something? Was it worth the grief? The answer should have been yes, but I kept my mouth shut.

I’m used to stigmatising comments, but it feels different when it’s coming from family. It feels more hurtful, more destructive to my self worth. This is a person that should accept me unconditionally and part of that is learning and educating themselves about mental illness. When they don’t make the effort to understand, then they’re diminishing the battle I have been through. I’m very open about living with Bipolar and Psychosis with my family. When they then continually use mental illness in a negative context right in front of me, I feel like giving up. What’s the point in writing and speaking about mental illness when someone in my family has no interest in changing the language they use?

I should have said something. If it had been my immediate family, or my partner I definitely would have pulled them up on the comment. That’s just me and I know for some people they don’t even have that close relationship with any of their family.

We often make exceptions for family like ‘it’s a generational thing’ or ‘they’re just having a laugh’ instead of confronting them on their ignorance. We don’t want to make a scene at a family party and be seen as the one that ruins the day. There’s this habitual behaviour in many families of keeping quiet and not being honest, in order to retain the status quo. It doesn’t help anyone and just fuels resentment.

It’s far healthier to start a conversation with that family member and tell them how it made you feel. They may disagree, they may react negatively but staying silent and excusing their comments doesn’t help anyone. If they truly care about you, they will reflect on what they’ve said and how it impacts you and others.

Next time I see this individual, I’m going to tell them how their words made me feel. Yes, it will be at a big celebration they organised. Yes, I’ll be surrounded by extended family who will probably disapprove of me making a ‘scene.’ I don’t believe in letting things linger. Hopefully it will help them see that flippant remarks can be deeply hurtful.

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