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How Mental Health Conversations Are Reinforcing the Stigma

We should talk about mental health the same way we talk about physical health.

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If you've never experienced a bout of depression or anxiety, it might be easy to assume that it only happens to "some" people. But here's the thing about mental illness: It doesn't discriminate.

The phrase "mental illness" tends to be used in a derogatory manner. "He must be mentally ill." "She has a mental illness."

But we don't talk about physical health that way. No one ever describes someone else by saying, "He's physically ill."

When it comes to physical health, we understand that health is a broad spectrum. Some people wear glasses. Others have bad knees. But we don't group everyone together and say they're "physically ill."

Mental health is a continuum. And there's a good chance you aren't at the "completely mentally healthy" end of the spectrum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 17 percent of adults are functioning at "optimal mental health." And it's likely that no one stays functioning at optimal mental health indefinitely.

Stress, a change in circumstances, disruptions to sleep, a change in diet, or family-related issues are just a few of the things that could affect you and your employees' mental health on any given day.

Let's Start Talking About Mental Strength and How to Build It

Diabetes can sometimes be prevented or reversed by a healthier lifestyle. And sometimes it can't. Yet we still talk about the importance of eating healthy, exercising, and losing weight without fear it will offend people.

But when it comes to mental health, there seems to be a fear that talking about prevention somehow implies people with mental illness are at fault for their struggles.

As a mental strength trainer, every week I hear people say, "I think the term 'mental strength' might offend someone." Some of them likely have a deep-rooted misconception that mental illness is a mental weakness.

Creating healthy mental habits—and ridding yourself of your bad habits—won't prevent all mental illness. But it could prevent some. Talking about how to take better care of yourself shouldn't be offensive.

It's similar to physical strength. Someone with a physical illness like diabetes can still build bigger biceps, and someone with depression or anxiety can still build mental muscle.

Talking openly about how to build mental strength could help many people improve their psychological well-being. And while it may occasionally offend someone, it may also save a lot of lives.

How to Change the Conversation

All of us can help chip away at the stigma of mental illness one conversation at a time. Here are a few things you can do to help start a conversation that could change someone's life:

  1. Talk about resources. Mental illness is treatable, but people need to know where to turn for help. Online screening tools, hotlines, and support groups are free of charge and available for everyone. If someone needs therapy or medication, talking to a physician is usually a good place to start.
  2. Discuss strategies for building mental strength. Practice mental strength exercises that help you deal with uncomfortable emotions and negative thinking. Share your strategies with others, and ask how they handle issues of self-doubt, feelings of guilt, or anxiety.
  3. Incorporate conversations about mental health into the workday. Mental health issues affect everything in the workplace from productivity to health insurance costs, so it's a great incentive for leaders to open the door to conversations about how to recognize and treat problems as well as how to take preventive measures.
  4. Think about mental health as a continuum. Rather than assume you're either mentally healthy or mentally ill, acknowledge that we all have ups and downs in life, and there are times when your mental health will be better and times it will be worse.
  5. Talk about the way mental illness is portrayed in movies and media. Unfortunately, many stories involving crime reference the perpetrator's mental illness. Movies, TV shows, and video games tend to portray people with mental illness as dangerous. Talk openly with others about the fact that most people with mental illness are not a danger to anyone.
  6. Share your story. Talk openly about periods in your life when you've felt depressed or anxious. Make it clear to anyone listening that you believe mental illness can happen to anyone and it's important to seek help.
  7. Offer to help others. Sometimes, people with mental illness struggle to recognize when they need help. Others don't know where to turn or what to do. Offer to help someone schedule an appointment with their doctor and offer to take them to the appointment. That type of support could be just the help someone needs to reach out to a professional.

Get Rid of the Stigma

Hopefully, we'll eventually live in a world where everyone receives regular mental health checkups the same way they get annual physicals. And people will be able to talk about depression, anxiety, or PTSD the same way someone might mention having arthritis.

Mental illness is treatable. But before we can expect people to get the help they need, we have to make sure they feel safe reaching out and asking for assistance.

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