How Mental Health Affects Communication

May 28, 2019

It's not what you say, it's how you say it. It's cliché, but true. For people with mental health disorders, how they say something may be quite different than someone not living with a mental illness.

Dr. Isabelle Bauman, interim department head for communication at Missouri State University, has been studying how mental health influences communication styles, and is writing a book on this work. She gives an example of communication differences. 

"Someone who has depression would have longer pauses than someone without depression, and that's also true of someone with anxiety," said Bauman. "It takes only 3/10 of a second in a conversation for somebody to switch a turn. So, if you're pausing for longer than that, people are gonna jump in even though you're not done speaking. So, people with depression and anxiety get interrupted a lot because they pause for such a long period of time in their conversation."

Bauman says that there are differences in nonverbal communication as well.

"A person with anxiety has more self-focused gestures, and by that I mean they will play with their hair, play with their necklace, adjust a sweater or shirt, things that are focused on their own body," said Bauman. "Most people when they're talking have object-focused gestures, and by that I mean gestures focused on something in the room around them, or something that they're talking about."

Eye contact is also minimal for those with depression, she noted. 

"Something that's really interesting about bipolar disorder is that people with bipolar disorder don't take advice. You will give them advice and they will nod and smile, and they go out and do exactly what they want," Bauman said.

She also studies how the broader society talks about mental health disorders - or the lack thereof.

"It's very much a taboo topic. That's getting to be a little bit less true more recently because there have been some very successful public service campaigns about mental health and mental illness, but largely, people are very uncomfortable talking about mental illness," said Bauman. "They don't know what to say about it, and they don't even know what words to use to talk about it. Do you say mental illness, or mental health disorder? We have a very hard time in this country carrying on a conversation about mental health and mental illness."

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year. For Bauman, she says that recognizing that the disorder is affecting communication patterns is one step to improving the conversations around mental health as a whole. It also can serve as a gateway to improving the support system for that person, which is key to mental health.

"I think the most important thing is, have they acknowledged to you that they have a mental health disorder? If they have, to acknowledge that back to them, and be up front with the fact that that is a factor in their life, and that it does affect how they experience the world," said Bauman. "Someone with depression is going to experience the world differently than someone without depression, and it's important for the people around them to recognize that, acknowledge that, and to not just say to them, "Oh, snap out of it. Just think happy thoughts." Well, if you have depression, you can't just think happy thoughts. You can't just snap out of it."