The theme of Mental Health Week this year is to #getreal, but what does that look like in a practical way? How do we have conversations about mental health in the workplace without overstepping boundaries or inadvertently adding to stigma? If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Despite social movements to destigmatize conversations about mental health, it can still be challenging to talk about.
At Argyle, we deliver social change marketing programs focusing on improved health outcomes, tobacco cessation, substance use, harm reduction and safety programs. We know that when people acknowledge the need for change, they also need support on how to do it. We also recognize the importance of making change in our own workplace to support our teams working on difficult projects or simply facing challenges including managing life during a global pandemic.
Here are some important things to consider when discussing mental health in your workplace, community or even at home.
Mental Health IS Health
Part of “getting real” about mental health is broadening our understanding of what mental health is…and what it’s not. Mental health is complex, and at its core, it is vital to our overall health and wellness. We often mistake good mental health as being in a state of perpetual happiness. In reality, we can still be “mentally well” and experience moments of intense sadness and anger because, well, we’re human. Treating mental health can also be complex, requiring more than social media interpretations of self-care such as spa days or ‘me time’.
Talking about Mental Health can be Tough
We’re all pretty comfortable sharing anecdotes about how Larry broke his leg skiing or how we threw out our back, or even about a tough diagnosis. If you sprain your ankle during your morning run, it will likely impact your daily routine, but you’re unlikely to feel shame or fear judgment. Mental health challenges can also limit our daily routine or ability to function, but we don’t discuss them in the same way. People living with a range of mental illnesses might experience internalized shame, especially in environments where they might feel unable to share their experiences and have an open dialogue about mental health.
Layers of Stigma
Even as we try to open up the conversation, some mental health conditions are more stigmatized than others. Anxiety and depression, also referred to as the “common colds of mental health,” are often the least stigmatized and sometimes associated with admirable traits including strength and perseverance. Other conditions, like bipolar and schizophrenia, are less understood and more likely to be subjected to judgment or fear. Those living with substance use disorders are sometimes considered to be more responsible for their conditions than those with other mental health challenges, adding to the stigma they face.
Structural stigma occurs when there is a lack of funding for prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders, while public stigma involves being rejected by society because of a mental health issue. At all levels, this kind of judgment can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness.
So, how can you help?
It can be uncomfortable when someone discloses symptoms related to mental illness. Maybe we haven’t had much experience or we don’t really know what to say. This can lead to well-intentioned advice to ‘exercise more’ or ‘focus on the positives’ or even ‘snap out of it’ in an effort to provide support. But this can invalidate the experience of the person making the disclosure. It is okay to not know what to say. In Argyle’s work facilitating difficult conversations about health, we’ve seen the best results when people listen without judgment and offer words of empathy instead of advice.
Ask Before You Offer
There may be times when you do have something to say. Maybe you have meaningful advice or personal anecdotes that could support the person who has shared their struggles with mental health. Asking permission before you share your own story demonstrates respect for their boundaries and empathy for their experience. Try saying, “I have been through something similar. Is it okay if I share some things I found to be helpful?”
Validation and Self-Preservation: Finding the Balance
It’s okay for you to have boundaries too. You’re not expected to provide expert counsel to other people in the workplace. It’s also important to protect your own mental health, especially if you find yourself distressed. The balance here is delicate but it doesn’t have to be awkward. It could be an opportunity to help a colleague access professional support.
For example, you could say, “I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to share this with me; if there is anything else you need for your mental health, there are other resources that can help. If I can ask, what options are you currently exploring?” There is no perfect formula. We may not always feel like we have the perfect words. When in doubt, extending compassion to others as well as to ourselves in difficult times is a good place to start.
Know what your company offers
It should be no surprise that companies are providing more mental health resources, especially as we grapple with the third wave of COVID-19. Become more familiar with what your company offers, whether that includes health benefits, in-house programs or online counselling. Knowing what resources are available will help you and your colleagues access vital support.
Create a space for hope
People manage to lead healthy and productive lives even with mental health challenges. Some people are symptomatic for a relatively short period of time, while others may need ongoing treatment to manage symptoms. Mental health is a part of all our lives, but it doesn’t define who we are. What we can do is #getreal, have open conversations, show compassion, understand the supports available and look out for one another.
Whether you’re looking to inspire change to improve lives, or help stakeholder navigate the challenging waters of mental health, the Argyle team is here to help. We have a dedicated team and a wealth of experience to share with you. Reach out to see how we might work together!
About the author:
Kathleen Keating-Toews is a Director of Social Change and Curriculum Development in Argyle’s national social change practice. She has spent the last 14 years working in research, education, and knowledge exchange with a specialization in understanding mental health and substance use disorders. In addition to her work at Argyle, Kathleen also teaches at the University of Manitoba and is currently teaching in Extended Education’s Applied Counselling Certificate Program.