Why You Should Never Tell Someone They Don't "Look" Mentally Ill

Warning: This story contains references to attempts at suicide, which some readers may find triggering. Please be mindful. And, as always, if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
There are plenty of things you shouldn't say to someone suffering from a mental health problem (and plenty of things you should), but "you don't look sick" ranks among the top of the list.
In a post to her Instagram page, blogger Milly Smith (a.k.a. @selfloveclubb) nailed exactly why it's such a problem to point out that someone doesn't "look" the part of a person who has a mental illness.
Smith posted two photos of herself, one in which she is makeup-free and vulnerable, and another in which she is dressed up and smiling. She was having suicidal thoughts when both photos were taken, she wrote.
Smith revealed that at age 14, she opened up to a doctor about having thoughts of suicide, only to have him respond that "you don't look suicidal."
"I remember in that moment my 14-year-old self felt invalidation, dumb and embarrassed; something no one in that mindset should have to feel," she wrote. "I left feeling confused, what was I supposed to look like? A bottle of pills in one hand and a suicide note in the other?"
She makes an excellent point — there's no benchmark for what a person should look like when they're suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, or any other mental illness. Believing that someone should look a certain way in order to be depressed undermines very real illnesses that often don't show up as physical symptoms and, as Smith wrote, stops people from seeking help.
"I remember the night just last year that I spiraled and overdosed in my living room," she wrote. "I remember thinking to myself, 'I can't get help, I don't look suicidal, I don't fit the bill, they'll laugh at me.' I remember thinking I must have looked the part, must have been wearing the suicidal costume properly when I woke up in Resus as all around me were concerned, worried, and sad faces."
As she pointed out, "this is the danger of thinking mental health has a 'face', a 'look.' This is how stigma, ignorance and judgement towards mental health/suicide affects those who are poorly."
In order to combat stigma, we have to dismantle the idea that someone has to look physically sick in order to need help. A person doesn't need to be stuck in bed all day or have matted hair in order to be depressed, though those are very real symptoms.
"Stop the judgment," she wrote. "Stop the stigma."
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