I hate platitudes in general, but I especially hate platitudes when they’re applied to mental illness. It’s so condescending when people offer some simple piece of advice and tell you it will fix everything. It’s disgustingly pious when people tell you you’re looking at things or handling things the wrong way because they know of a rhyming couplet. Not only are platitudes unlikely to be helpful in general, I would suggest they are even less so for people with a mental illness (especially serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder). Here’s why people need to stop offering platitudes to those with mental illness (and maybe everyone else).

Recent Platitudes Aimed at My Mental Illness

Someone sent me this ever-so-helpful platitude the other day on social media:

“Perhaps you’ve been assigned this mountain to show others that it can be moved.”

To which I replied, “I doubt it.” (I’m really not that special.)

The person replied with this:

“Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will. Keep believing, keep striving, and let your actions prove the doubts wrong.”

My mental illness got hit with a double dose of platitude. Lucky me.

Why People Force Platitudes for Mental Illness

When people offer platitudes for mental illness, I think there are multiple factors involved.

  • People think that platitudes are helpful. If a new-age guru said it (or if it was in a fortune cookie), it must be true and helpful.
  • People assume that if a platitude was beneficial for them, it will be beneficial for you.
  • People think it makes them seem smart. A person may think that being able to pull a quoted platitude out of thin air makes them seem intelligent, and it makes them feel good about themselves that they could offer such “wisdom.”
  • People don’t know what to say about such a serious subject, and so grasp for someone else’s words.

In the above cases, no malice is meant. The people are just misinformed about what mental illness is and how ordinary life struggles do not compare to a disabling, life-threatening, lifelong illness.

I believe the person who said these things to me on social media had the best of intentions. I think he thought he was being helpful. I don’t think he was trying to be condescending and pious. The problem is, that’s how it came across.

The Problems with Platitudes for Mental Illness

I’m honestly not sure who platitudes help, but I know they don’t help people with mental illness.

First off, I don’t buy into fortune cookie wisdom, and I especially don’t buy into fortune cookie wisdom that doesn’t take into account a mental illness. Because when someone says something as common as: “You can do anything you want; you just have to try,” they are not remotely taking into account people with disabilities.

I would argue it’s not true for anyone, we all have limiting factors, but those of us who are disabled have very notable limiting factors.

For example, I used to work a 40+ hour-a-week office job. It was a good job for a huge company. I made good money and got great benefits. However, I can no longer do that. I am now disabled to the point where I can’t work eight hours (or more) a day, five days a week. I literally can’t do it. It’s impossible. I’m too sick. It doesn’t matter how much I want it; I can’t do it.

And that’s one of the most common and accepted platitudes. It certainly gets worse the more unusual the platitude.

Moreover, platitudes aim to tell you how to think and act. It tells you how you’re thinking and acting right now is wrong, and this simple platitude for mental illness will fix that; it will fix you.

This negates a person’s experience and journey. This invalidates where they are today — which is likely far more considered than whatever you can find in a fortune cookie. There is a reason why people think the way they do. There is a reason why people act the way they do. Usually, they think and act the way they do because it’s the best thing for them, considering many complicated factors. Could they improve? Likely. We all can. But they’re not going to improve with a fortune cookie. They just aren’t.

People with mental illness deserve better than platitudes. We just do.

Don’t Offer Platitudes for Mental Illness — Do This Instead

I think that some quotes and platitudes can have a kernel of wisdom in them. We don’t need to gloss over that and throw the baby out with the incredibly annoying bathwater.

Instead of just throwing out a platitude, how about saying something like this: “I like this quote. It helped me. To me, it means . . .”

Then, you can start a conversation about why you think something is helpful. That’s the impactful part. The impactful part is how a specific platitude helped you and why you think it could help someone else. This open dialog allows the person with the mental illness to say why it might or might not be relevant or helpful to them.

Or, for god’s sake, just speak in your own words from a personal perspective. Your thoughts don’t need to be short or pithy to matter.

And finally, be prepared to have your thoughts rebuffed. Look, unless you have a serious mental illness, it’s highly unlikely you understand our challenges. Just accept that our lives are different from yours. Just accept that what speaks to you might not speak to us. Just accept that platitudes probably aren’t helpful for those with mental illness. And that’s okay.


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