Judging the Mental Health of People You Don’t Know

ErinThe Mental Health System17 Comments

phrenologyI’m really surprised at how much people compare their struggles to someone else’s without knowing the full story.

The other day I was sitting in a waiting room, ten minutes before seeing my psychiatrist. There were three other people in the waiting room and soon a name was called and two people stood up and left. It appeared as though one of them was the “patient” and the other person with them was there for moral support.

As soon as they’d left the waiting room, the remaining woman leaned over and said, “You know, I really feel sorry for people like that.”

She looked at me, clearly expecting a response. I just smiled a little and kept reading. I couldn’t focus though, thinking about what that woman had just said to me.

I remembered that I’d had the exact same experience the last time I’d been in that waiting room! It was a different person who had leaned over and said the same words to me, that they felt sorry for another patient.

This rarely ever happens to me outside of a doctor’s office setting. It really makes me angry.

I don’t feel “sorry” for anyone I don’t know. I feel compassion and respect for other people and leave it at that because I don’t know their story. Their story is their business, not mine.

Only my mental health is my business to comment on or judge, and even then, I’m biased.

I feel like people say things like, “I feel sorry for people like that” to somehow convince themselves that they “aren’t that sick, thank goodness.”

The woman might as well have said, “I’m glad I’m not that crazy.” And she assumed that maybe I wasn’t “that crazy” either and by making that comment we could somehow be on the same level of sanity. What the hell?!

No one knows what someone else is going through unless they ask them and know them. And even then, we shouldn’t judge. We all have biases that can offend others.

For example, I’m writing this blog post with as much description as I can so that you can imagine the situation, but I’m making judgements too. Like, I assumed it was a woman talking to me in the waiting room, but perhaps that person doesn’t identify as female. I don’t know their gender or what pronoun they prefer.

That’s why I don’t talk in waiting rooms. I am there for my health and no one else’s. Deal with your own life, your own problems, and don’t make assumptions about other people. Although it may be human nature for us to judge one another, most of us have a conscience to keep us from saying whatever pops into our brain.

My dad has this sign in his workshop that says, “Make sure brain is engaged before putting mouth into gear.”

My brain is engaged and I do my best not to comment on things I have no authority on.

If someone makes a similar comment to me in the future, maybe I will say, “I don’t know that person so I’m not judging them one way or another.”

Sometimes, though, it just is easier to smile and then bury my face in my book. Maybe that alone conveyed the message that I wasn’t into judging other people.

Can you relate to this story? What do you do in these situations?

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ErinJudging the Mental Health of People You Don’t Know

17 Comments on “Judging the Mental Health of People You Don’t Know”

  1. Dave

    I agree. I never talk to people in the waiting room. It’s hard enough not trying to judge myself, I don’t want to comment on anybody’s situation in life or why they are seeing someone.

  2. Annette

    I hear you loud and clear! Last month, I was in the waiting room at the hospital with about a dozen other people. We were all waiting to be called to say our someone had come out of surgery. There were a few comments that surprised me but the one that truly threw me came from someone whose brain was obviously in park! A young mother and her toddler were in with us. The toddler was wearing a small backpack with a cord that attached to the mother’s wrist. He was a busy little boy and the mother did a fantastic job of keeping him entertained and calm for the hours we sat in that windowless dungeon. When she finally got called, immediatelt following her departure, a young woman loudly remarked, to no one in particular, that she would NEVER put her kid on a leash – if she had kids! At first, there was stunned silence. Then, we kind of gave her a piece of our minds. Basically saying you can’t judge a parent when you have no idea. People were very open with their comments about putting a “leash” on their own children. The woman didn’t have the sense to be embarrassed but it was also nice to hear people defend the mother in her absence.

  3. Marcus

    I kind of have a different spin to the same judging problems (aka “Mind you own damn business”). For almost two years I’ve been in and out of a clinic for severe chronic depression and suicidal thoughts. Every other week or so, someone will say to me, “… but you look so normal. Why are you even here?” It just reinforces the fact that we can never know what someone else is going through just by looking at them. Never, ever, ever trust my smile.

    This is an awesome and thought-provoking blog topic. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. (Side note: it is because of your blog and videos that I decided to step out from behind my smiles and start my own blog). Thank you.

    1. John

      You are right about the smiles. In past two years I have had 3 friends commit suicide, all in their 50s. They smiled and they were runners like myself. Obviously they were hurting inside and faked their happiness quite well. I have learned to talk to people as people. I don’t try to be a psychologist.

  4. Gracie

    Ummmm….do you understand the irony of this post? Judge not lest ye be judged, amiright? Maybe that poor woman hadn’t spoken to anyone since her last visit to her psychiatrist (literally, not spoken – as in no human interaction), maybe she was incredibly anxious and desperately needed some reassurance. Practice empathy, please. And try not to be so judgy.

    1. Erin

      Hi Gracie,

      Good point! I guess I would have responded better had the woman talked about her own feelings of anxiety and needing reassurance, as you imagine. Had that been the case I would have felt more safe in having a conversation. Instead she chose to connect with me over another patient’s issues. That’s not something I am comfortable discussing with a stranger.

    2. Erin

      Another point here is that you’re also judging my post and telling me not to be “judgy.” Maybe that illustrates the point that it’s nearly impossible not to judge others even when we’re trying not to. It’s part of the human experience. Self-awareness is key.

  5. Nikki

    What a really honest and insightful post. It’s always so interesting, and often awful, to see how people can form assumptions so easily about mental health. I’ve had a read over your blog and it’s filled with some really helpful and honest content. I’ve started running a blog about talking about depression, it would be really cool if you could check it out! Thanks, Nikki :)


  6. Sarah

    Hi Erin,

    I made it here because I sometimes struggle with depression and am at a pivotal point in my life where my career could become anything I currently push for. I thought maybe I’d like to do something where I could help people and subsequently found your writings in searching for blogs about depression.

    I know how bad it can get and how identifying a cause through blinding symptoms is nearly impossible. This is true even for doctors and even for science; something that appears illogical. Anyway, if you’re like me and practice the self-help route, resources that are freely available online can be a great help so I really love what you’re doing, here!

    I did want to comment on this post in particular, however, but I wanted to point out that a cause for much of my anxiety and depression is that I often obsess over possible double meanings in what people say. This for me was triggered when I moved out of country and the cultural difference of nuanced communication confused me and resulted in paranoia. This new style of communicating involved subtler personal criticisms that were more suggestive and hinted upon (apparently more polite) rather than delivered in an addressable way. This delivery felt more like grappling with negative judgements opposed to friendly banter where you call your friend an asshole with a smile, and you therefore know it’s out of respect. This warrants a snappy retort and subsequent beer clink.

    Anyway, I wanted to say this because no one wants to be judged and we live in an individualistic world where we are supposed to be responsible for everything that happens to us. This is particularly true regarding careers and so we take criticisms and measures of success really personally. We also tend to judge ourselves very harshly and so the next, non-hypocritical thing to do, is to judge everyone else just as harshly. We do this as we realize the only thing we all need is a bit of compassion which makes the whole thing feel like an impossible struggle, and a big ol’ mess.

    Also, a reason why this new cultural difference was so difficult for me and why I took it so personally, and therefore why it was so depressing, was because I felt like I no longer had a voice. I had to re-learn how to communicate. This might be a commonality for a lot of depressed people which is maybe why communicative outlets such as blogs or therapists ease our tensions. It’s for this reason that I will now encourage you to speak up next time!

    True, that woman may have been putting down the other patient in an effort to make herself feel better, or maybe she felt truly sympathetic. Her words without the hidden communication of vocal tone or body language only imply that she felt bad for them, but maybe she did mean, “sucks to be them?” I could never know. But now you can’t know either. This was a missed opportunity for you to defend that other patient and metaphorically yourself. Or you could put your nose back in your book leaving the other patient judged, the woman judged not just by you, but also by your followers, and you agitated.

    Standing up for your morals always feels good and almost always feels justified. It just takes some practice and some courage.


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