How to talk about mental health

Normalizing mental health conversations can make a huge difference for yourself and other people, but do we know how to do it? We share the dos and don’ts.
Health, Psychology

Do we need to talk about mental health?

In recent years, mental health has got more public attention than ever before in the human history. It emerged as a critical issue before the pandemic struck, and moved to the forefront of healthcare concerns with Covid taking its toll on our wellbeing. Still, for many of us the topic remains difficult to openly discuss. We may agree that those in need should receive help, but prefer not to be personally involved. As if the distance could protect us from mental illness entering our lives because it’s too scary to face it. Yet, talking about mental health should be meaningful and important to everyone.

Mental health is universal and we all have it

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “mental health”? Depression? Psychiatric ward? Maybe hearing voices and seeing things that don’t exist? Mostly, we think of disorders, while mental health is part of overall health and everyone has it. It may be better or poorer depending on the personal story, and it inevitably changes over time as we have to manage life’s highs and lows. The truth is that good mental health is neither granted nor guaranteed to last, and our best chance to maintain or regain it is to learn to take care of it.

Mental illness can affect anyone

A lot of factors contribute to mental illness. There is the genetic lottery, environmental exposures before birth, early childhood experiences, the influence of the major events in the family history, physical injuries, chronic medical conditions, stressful life events and everyday hassles, the world around us – with politics, economy and climate change, the environment that we create for ourselves – our home, people that surround us, and the lifestyle we follow. All those factors affect us and no one is totally immune to mental illness, but you can substantially reduce the risk, and there is effective and reliable treatment when it occurs.

Ending stigma, shame and silence

The longer you neglect mental health when it deteriorates, the harder it gets to restore the inner balance and maintain the resilience to bounce back when things don’t go as intended. The longer mental illnesses go untreated, the more severe they become. Yet a lot of people struggle in silence, not getting any help, being afraid of judging eyes and ears, snide comments and suddenly limited career and social opportunities. Whatever stance we take – we all shape this environment, and we can either maintain the status quo or normalize the talk about mental health.

Beware of the messages you convey

With mental health issues becoming increasingly prevalent, there is a high chance that they will be experienced by your family member, friend or a colleague, although it may not be easily visible. Your “harmless” comments heard by someone may make them feel isolated and prevent them from speaking up.

Let people know that you are open to talk

Ignoring that there are hardships will not help anyone. Meaningful conversations can be encouraged by a simple, impersonal comment about life or by showing a genuine interest when you ask someone how they are. Starting small and using casual occasions is perfectly fine and makes things less scary.

Try to see things the way the other person does

Don’t diminish anyone’s feelings. There is no agreed model specifying how a depressed person should look and it is not impossible that what you perceive as a great life is experienced as hard by the person leading it. And no, you are just not able to know exactly how someone else is feeling. You may say what you observed but if you really want to know what’s going on, switch on your curiosity mode and ask open questions.

Offer reassurance and support

While it may be tempting to show that you know better and have ready solutions, what works for you is not universal. People have their own individual needs, and they may vary at different stages of what they go through. Sometimes, it may be no more than listening without interrupting and jumping in with your own stories. Make your suggestions if the other person is willing to hear them, but let them decide what they see as helpful. Except for real emergencies – when someone is drowning, you don’t ask them if they would be interested in taking swimming lessons, but throw them a life vest. When there is such necessity, call for help.

Don’t play an expert or a guru if you’re not one

The odds are low that you possess the indisputable answers or have a mysterious connection to a source of wisdom. Acting as if you do not only can feel dismissive, but may do harm when the person decides to follow what you say. Also, don’t pressure anyone to share the painful details, it is their decision to do this or not.

Educate yourself and others

Stigma and fear arise out of misconceptions and a lack of knowledge. Most of us know the difference between a flu, diabetes and cancer, and we don’t refer to them under a “physical illness” umbrella. Similarly, “mental illness” is a vast category encompassing various disorders with their own unique symptoms. You don’t need to know them all but it is worth to be aware of the basic facts about the most common ones, which include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, substance abuse, and dementia. It makes it easier to recognize the early warning signs and reach out for or provide “the first psychological aid”. Some people don’t know that what they experience is well understood and treatable.

Consider how personal you want to get

We have no problem saying “I am on Gripex” but most of us will hesitate with “I am on Xanax”. No one should be pushed to talk about their mental health issues, but when it is done by choice, it may encourage others to join, and it can give a sense of relief as well. Done in a safe environment, talking will make you realize that you are not alone and may have a healing effect. Being open and authentic also helps building meaningful relations, so there is a lot to gain on a positive side. Prepare though by reflecting how much you want to share and with whom as it’s not about disclosing your full story in front of a hostile audience. Sharing is a process and can start with what seems most comfortable. Observe the reactions and how you feel, and learn your boundaries.

How EAP Program can help

ICAS Employee Assistance Program Helpline is available 24/7 so our clients may reach out for support any time they need. The psychologists on the line may help you learn how to talk about mental health by discussing with you what you feel and what you observe in your environment, by addressing your uncertainty and fears, by providing information and the language to use, or by practising the conversations with you.


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