How to Talk About Mental Health

Some days you feel pretty blue. It’s a gorgeous day out, but you have three exams, seven meetings and eight presentations bringing you down. You stress out about trying to fit in Netflix time. You get really nervous about your grades and that cute boy in your math class. You probably don’t have clinical depression, anxiety or a panic disorder — but your friends might. One in five young adults (ages 18-25) have a mental health issue, meaning there’s a good chance you know someone struggling. It’s important for a person experiencing a crisis to have a safe outlet for their struggles.

Google defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” A significant amount of people are under the impression that people with mental health issues are ready to snap at any moment and become violent. Most of these stereotypes can be attributed to the media beefing stories up about people with mental health problems as criminals (Psychology Today). So why is there this mark of disgrace associated with mental health? Incorrect linkages between psychiatric sufferers and dangerous criminals who can’t lead normal lives are dangerous. It leads to gossip and bad attitudes, and in the end the only people at risk of harm are those coping with mental health issues. Humans live high-pressured lives, so it’s not surprising to me that so many people seem to be affected. What does surprise me is the way that we treat mental health.

Mental health issues, big and small, seem to be linked with failure to comply with the perfect life. We’re supposed to say “good” when asked how we’re doing, even if the world is crushing our bones. We treat the workings of our inner minds as private, personal and none of your business. This is part of the problem. One of the biggest issues stems from silencing sufferers. If we can’t speak about what’s truly on our mind, then we can’t learn from each other.

It’s harder to understand someone who is coping with anxiety than it is to soothe someone with a sprained ankle. If we were to abolish stigma altogether, people would have an easier time discussing what’s really going on within their skulls. There are many campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma attached to mental health issues, but they all begin in the same place: education. We have to educate ourselves so we can educate others in order to help eliminate myths surrounding mental illness. Then begins the journey to dispel stigma.  

Once you’re educated, you’ll be better equipped to handle a conversation with someone battling mental health issues. The best course of action you can take is to talk about anything and everything. Talk to someone about their issues and speak up about your own. Talk to someone with depression about the newest It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode, or talk to them about their feelings. It’s time we stop bottling everything up. We’re only human. By keeping everything to ourselves, we’re letting the problem get out of hand. The number of people suffering and committing suicide will only go up.

Suicide. Just typing out the word suicide makes me hesitate because it’s so taboo. We don’t speak about it, but we want it to end. Did you know the number of people who commit suicide each year has steadily increased since 2005? We speak about suicide in hushed tones and remain hopeful that the matter will clear itself up. The problem isn’t going to go away on it’s own, and that’s why clearing the stigma is urgent.

There are many things a person can do to contribute to the cause. Avoid using labels. The man with schizophrenia isn’t a “schizo.” He’s a man suffering from a disorder in the same way someone suffers from diabetes. Medical illnesses don’t define people. Try to be wary of some of the derogatory terms you may be guilty of using. You might offend someone dear to your heart without even knowing it.

The best way to get around the usage of derogatory terms is to become informed about the issue. It’ll make you want to change, and it’ll help you make a change. Read up on the latest material. Separate fact from fiction. Challenge the way people view mental illnesses in order to educate those around you.

We have to change the way we talk about those with mental health issues. The labels need to be torn up. The linkages between those struggling to cope with mental health and crime rates need to be thrown away. Our whole mindset should be reframed around the idea that humans need our compassion to get better. People have to know it’s okay to reach out and that there’s no shame in needing help. Otherwise we’re condemning those silent sufferers to self-imprisonment. When you have the flu, does your roommate tell you to just get over it? Would you tell a cancer patient to stop whining about the chemotherapy effects? Of course not. It should be the same for clinical depression and for any other psychiatric disability.

Bill Clinton said it best: “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” I strongly encourage you to read his radio address if you have the time. Some of the factual information is outdated, but his sentiments are powerful. Below I’m leaving what seems like too many links. Hopefully what you read today will encourage you to look over at least one page. If you help even one person with what you’ve learned, you’ve done a great service.  

1. UF: Counseling and Wellness Center
2. UF: AWARE
3. The Do's and Don'ts of Mental Health Discussion
4. How Should We Talk About Mental Health?
5. 7 Ways to Reduce Stigma
6. 11 Myths About Mental Illness
7. Bill Clinton's Radio Address (1999)
8. Simple Steps to Reduce Stigma
9. AFSP Statistics
10. Learn More Through NAMI

Photo credits: coastalwestsussexmind.org