This is a question I get from people all the time. After all, it’s very difficult to know what to do with a wall of silence. It’s loved ones who ask this question, and I think they deserve to know ideas about what to do if a person with mental illness stops talking to them.
There are some cases in which you might have done something to make a person with mental illness stop talking to you. This isn’t always the case, of course, but it can happen; after all, we’re all human and make mistakes. Now, the other person’s lack of communication might be an overreaction to the situation (people with mental illness often feel things more deeply than others), but if you have a part to play in the silence, you need to own up to it. This likely means some soul-searching to determine what your part was and how you want to handle it, but I find a mea culpa tends to work fairly well in most relationships.
So what to do?
That said, it’s quite possible that you did nothing wrong at all and the person with mental illness is not talking to you for their own reasons that have nothing to do with you. In this case, here are some plans for what to do when a person with mental illness stops talking to you:
- Give them some space. This is a hard one, I know. When you’re up against silence, some of us desperately want to end it. This is totally normal. But if a person with mental illness needs time, they need time. Texting them 10 times a day is not going to help them talk to you and showing up at their house isn’t going to help either. In fact, both of those things may prevent a person from reaching out.
- Reach out to the person — a little bit. I know this seems to go against the above, but it doesn’t; you can actually do both. What I suggest is giving a bit of time (say, a day or two), and then reaching out with something simple like a text that says something like, “I hope you’re okay. I’m here for you when you’re ready to talk.” It’s also reasonable to say something like, “I’m worried about you. Please text me, even just one word, to let me know you are okay.”
- Be supportive. When handling a person with mental illness that’s not talking to you, remember that the person with the mental illness may already feel really bad about not talking to you but the mental illness is still getting in the way. The best thing you can do for a person in that situation is to tell them that you still love and care about them. Send them a text that says something like, “Not talking is hard for me, but I want you to know it doesn’t change how I feel about you. I still love and care about you. I will be here when you’re ready to talk.”
- Be honest. While you want to be supportive and be there for the person, your feelings are important too. This means it’s okay to reach out and say, “I’m feeling hurt that you’re refusing to talk to me right now. I will be here when you’re ready.” This expresses your feelings and still leaves the door open for future communication.
What if they stop talking to you and they might be in danger?
All of the above assumes the person with mental illness is not a danger to themselves — unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. It is very scary, of course, when you’re worried about a person’s safety. In this case, I think it’s reasonable to text something like, “I’m worried about you and your safety. Please text me, even just one word, to let me know that you’re okay. This is very important.”
And then, if the person doesn’t respond, you might want to say the same thing but add, “Because I’m worried about your physical safety if you don’t respond, I’m going to come over to ensure you’re okay.” Then follow through with this and go see the person. Don’t expect to stay, just confirm they are okay.
And finally, if you can’t go there or you feel it’s not appropriate or safe to go there, then call the police and ask for a wellness check. Yes, the police do these. You’re not reporting an actively dangerous situation, you’re just reporting someone that may be in danger and is refusing to respond. Use the words “wellness check” when you call and make sure you have a good reason for requesting one (mention a past suicide attempt if there has been one).
It’s likely that the person with mental illness will not react well to having a police officer at their door but their safety is more important than their possible ire.
What to Do When They Continue Not Talking to You
Unfortunately, sometimes a person with mental illness won’t talk to you for a prolonged period of time. This is incredibly sad for both of you. In that case, try to keep the lines of communication open without being overbearing. For example, maybe pick one day a week when you send a text message reminding the person that you care about them and still want to talk in spite of the duration of the silence. You really want to get both of those messages across so the person is more likely to open up when they’re ready.
But in the end, if none of that works and you’ve reached the end of your rope with this person, that’s okay too. No one is superhuman and no one can continue to communicate into a void forever — a relationship is made up of two people, after all. If you feel like you just can’t keep talking to a person who won’t talk back to you, communicate that, and communicate your need for conversation.
And if they still won’t talk to you, then be prepared to distance yourself. That is an option, and exercising doesn’t make you a bad person — it just makes you a person. Unfortunately, sometimes things don’t work out. Unfortunately, sometimes mental illness destroys things. And, unfortunately, sometimes there’s nothing we can do about it.
And to everyone out there with a mental illness — please reach out to your loved ones. You’re putting them through hell by refusing to talk to them. I know you have your reasons — and some of them are very good reasons — but even just saying that you’re okay can be a huge relief for the people who love you. They’re worth it and so are you. ❤️