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Breaking the Stigma: 4 Ways to Start the Mental Health Conversation

illustrator:    lynnie zulu

illustrator: lynnie zulu

 

Talking about mental health can be difficult and uncomfortable, especially with the people you love and care about most. Mental health is a deeply personal and sensitive subject, but the only way to become more knowledgeable and understanding is by talking about it.

The belief that mental health is a private matter and should never be discussed is harmful and only strengthens the misconception that people with mental illnesses should feel embarrassed about their conditions.  

In honor of Mental Wellness Month, we’ve created a list of five ways you can start conversations about mental health in a way that’s comfortable and engaging for all parties involved.

Whether you’re trying to spread more awareness or help a friend you’re concerned about, mental health is an extremely sensitive topic. Address it with the right intent and be considerate of the other people in the conversation.

1. Start the discussion in a relaxed setting.

Jumping straight into a face-to-face conversation about mental health might be too intimidating for some. And that’s okay. Start the conversation off simple by talking on the phone or sending a text message. A text message gives the other person the ability to answer on their own time, allowing them to formulate their response without any pressure.

Initiate the conversation over text messages or phone calls and then gradually make your way towards face-to-face communication. Once you reach this point, it’ll be easier to talk when you’re doing something like taking a walk or driving. Rather than facing each other, sitting side by side makes the conversation relaxed.

Movement can also help get rid of your nervousness, especially when talking with children. Working on a project can take their mind off the anxiety and discomfort and allow them to express their feelings.

2. Ask open-ended questions.

It’s not only important to create the right environment, but also to determine the best way to begin the conversation. Asking questions about the other person’s feelings and genuinely listening to their response is a direct way to discuss mental health.

The best types of questions are open-ended because the person can answer however they feel most comfortable.

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s mental health, ask them how they’re feeling. Start by saying something like “You don’t seem quite yourself lately, what’s bothering you?" or “I’ve noticed that you seem more stressed or worried lately. Is everything okay?” These questions are great to start with because they can help you gauge a person’s willingness to open up. If they respond with a short, one-word answer, they might not be ready to talk. On the other hand, if they do open up about how they’re feeling, this might be the right opportunity to discuss mental health.

No matter what question you decide to ask, it’s important to listen to their response. Let the person take their time, and don’t interrupt them. After they finish talking, don’t jump to conclusions or tell them what they should do. Sometimes people aren’t seeking advice, but instead, want someone to listen to their concerns.

Finally, be persistent. Regularly ask them how they’re doing and let them know that you’re always available to talk. Even if they’re not ready to open up now, knowing that you care may make them more receptive when you ask them in the future.

3. Be open about your own experiences.

Trust plays a significant role when it comes to discussing something as personal as mental health. Expecting someone to open up about their challenges can be difficult if you’re not willing to do the same.

We’ve all struggled with our mental health at one point, and sharing those tough times is both relatable and encouraging. Being open shows people that it’s okay to feel this way and that you can relate to what they’re going through.

Of course, you shouldn’t feel pressured to share your own experiences. Share your story in a way that feels comfortable for you and prepared to answer questions about your experiences. You don’t have to know all the answers or be an expert, just be honest. An open dialogue is better than no dialogue.

4. Share media that covers mental health.

We live in a society where media brings us closer together. Think about the last movie or TV show you watched and the excitement you had when you were able to have meaningful discussions about that content with the people around you.

Talking about media that addresses mental health—whether it’s in a small or big way—gives you the chance to approach the subject indirectly. Instead of talking about mental health as it relates to your experiences, you can talk about the mental health of a fictionalized character in a movie, TV show, or book. You can enjoy media with your friends and family and talk about the situations within the plot, easing your way into a discussion on mental health.

Additionally, seeing characters with mental illnesses in the media you consume helps to normalize mental health and reinforce that it isn’t something you should be ashamed of or uncomfortable discussing.

The only way to break the stigma is to become more knowledgeable and be open to discussions on mental health. Hopefully, these strategies can help you initiate more conversations with the people in your life.