#Let’sTalk about Mental Health: Opening the Conversation

#Let’sTalk about Mental Health: Opening the Conversation

Opening the Conversation; or, How I Approach Initiating Chats about Mental Health Issues

By Helen ‘Sunflower’ Slee

Let’s talk about mental health. The more we all become aware, the more we recognize its vastness and that there are numerous kinds of mental health conditions existing and affecting everyone around us. Research is constant and the definitions of different kinds of mental health issues are always being updated. You likely know someone who is working through a mental health disorder, from depression to anxiety disorders to insomnia to substance addictions to autism-spectrum conditions to eating disorders, to name only a few (and barely scratch the surface). There is a huge variety, and they often seem invisible. This is part of the reason why so many people remain so uninformed about the existence and seriousness of mental health conditions.

In the fifth year of my undergraduate degree at Brock University, I worked in the Student Justice Centre as the Outreach Peer, and in this position I learned so much about mental health and how to engage with social justice issues. One of many ongoing campaigns raises mental health awareness and fights stigma. I am passionate about equity and raising awareness so that, someday, those with mental health issues, from invisible or mild conditions to visibly difficult disorders, will be able to openly identify themselves in public spaces, if they choose to do so, and not feel threatened or judged. About a third of the closest and dearest people to me are affected by mental health disorders, so the stigma they face really bothers me. I see people I care about being discriminated against and staying silent in the face of prejudiced and judgemental comments pretty frequently, which is evidence of a systematic problem. The people I love, and the people I don’t love and don’t know, who have mental health issues should not have to feel this way.

How do we improve the general public’s education on this topic and raise awareness about the reality of living with mental health disorders? By initiating the chats ourselves. We can talk about them in any way we can: in real-life conversation, via telephone or internet, by writing blogs and articles, through social networking and discussion forums. There are an infinite number of platforms that we use for communication, especially with technology, and there are so many ways to connect with the issue via reading, writing, sharing, and creating information about mental health. The real difficulty is raising the topic, starting the ball rolling, and keeping the talk going.

Another challenge is approaching the topic in an anti-oppressive way.

It is important to question both why the conversation is being started and what the motives of the participants are. The motives are so important. Do I benefit from this conversation? Do you? Are we being voyeuristic? Are we being safe? And, most importantly, are we bring respectful?

There is a great deal of stigma attached to mental health, which enables uninformed people to pass judgements on those who tackle their mental health on a daily basis, ranging from “Depressed people can just change their attitude!” to “Anxiety isn’t a serious thing, you just need to relax.” to “Insomnia? Please. Just get in bed and close your eyes, sleep will come.” to “Addicts can stop whenever they want, it’s just willpower.” to “This kid needs discipline, it doesn’t matter how they see the world.” to “Just finish everything on your plate, it’s not like you’re fat”. These are some very tame examples of the kinds of blanket-statement comments that uninformed individuals and groups can make about people who have mental health conditions. Some of them are purposefully prejudiced, but others are uninformed. Misinformed ignorance is just as dangerous as decisive hostility.

This is where chats come in.

My work in the field of social justice taught me so much about trying to live in an anti-oppressive way, and the number one lesson was that there is no perfect approach. There is no foolproof way to start a conversation or discuss a topic. No matter how politically-correct or respectful I attempt to be, it is important to remember that everyone has a different perspective on issues, even if we are members of the same group or both working through similar issues. While I might find a blunt statement of fact to be empowering or honest, someone else may find it judgemental or oppressive. Some people are happy to take ownership of their conditions as labels and re-purpose them to be open and positive. Others believe that they do not owe the public anything; that having a disorder does not require them to ‘teach’ people about their illness. Both stances are absolutely correct. In this world, everyone’s perspective is valid and I do not have the right to tell them otherwise. If I have to alter my approach to reach someone, then I should do so.

But, importantly, do not feel obliged to share private information or educate this person. If I cannot respond, I don’t have to. I do not owe anyone anything, and if I have a mental health issue, I am not obliged to educate on the subject. I am not a teachable moment. I am a person. If you want to be a teachable moment, great, I encourage you to take a chance and go for it. If not, then, if it is possible, end the conversation on a positive note and suggest resources for future information. This gives the conversation partner the chance to actually think about what I shared or referred, and take charge of their own education, if they will.

When opening a conversation about mental health issues with someone I believe or know to have experience in the area, I am always as open and respectful as possible, but there is always a chance that I could say something which offends them. When that happens, I practice the second most important lesson I have learned as a social justice advocate: knowing when to apologize and step back. It is important to respect other people’s opinions, especially when they differ from my own, because arguing will never accomplish anything. If I try to tell someone who has a mental health disorder what their mental health disorder is about or what their experience is like, I am speaking for them, and that is not at all supportive. Their experience is bound to be different than mine, and the best thing I can do to support them and show my solidarity is listen to them, not just talk about what I know. Respect is key and that means listening to what they have to say and respecting their point-of-view… especially when it differs from my own.

It is easy to start a conversation about mental health naturally or agreeably, when we are discussing something similar or the other person/people to whom I am speaking refer to the topic on their own… but what about situations where you have to open the conversation? For example, when someone makes a joke at the expense of mental health conditions or uses an oppressive insult like ‘crazy’, ‘retard’, ‘stupid’, ‘dumb’, ‘idiot’, or ‘spaz’?

I am a big believer in constructively criticizing disempowering language and calling out hate and stigma when it happens. It can be very difficult to do, in the moment, when I am shocked by someone’s blatant cruelty, whether intentional or unintentional, and I have been struck dumb on many occasions. I am always shocked when someone displays open hatred towards a minority group. And because I am reactive, sometimes it can be difficult for me to keep calm and respond by criticizing the ideas, not the person sharing them.

But that is key. If I simply attack my conversation partner, they will defend themselves and ignore any real social justice lessons they could potentially learn. Calling out their problematic ideas is necessary, calling them names is not. Explain why the damaging stereotype they referenced, or oppressive language they used, is problematic. Give examples. Cite information. Reference my own condition or talk respectfully about people I know who have disorders. Take away the anonymity and make mental health about real people with real health problems, not unrealistic stereotypes.

If they do not listen, or if I have difficulty expressing yourself, or if I am too emotional to engage with the conversation, that is fine. It is never wrong to ‘vote with your feet’ and walk away. Live to share another day. Take care of yourself. You don’t have to fight all the time. Even one well-placed comment can make someone think, and then I can take my leave and let them ruminate. Sometimes sharing your discomfort can be a ‘wake-up-call’ for someone. I can employ active listening techniques such as: “When you say or do THIS then, I feel THIS WAY…” or “That comment made me feel really uncomfortable because…”. They can have a big impact because they tell your conversation partner exactly where you are at and highlight your real feelings. Their actions may be unintentional, and a little education can go a long way.

Different kinds of conversations with diverse kinds of people will always turn out differently. There are no formulae for the perfect chat about mental health. Especially because I never know if I am speaking to someone who has a mental health condition, or is close to someone who does, or has personal experiences relating to mental health. All I can do is raise or transition into the topic and share what I know openly and respectfully while remaining aware that each person and conversation will be different, and being prepared to adjust my approach if it’s not working out.

I never want to speak over someone who wants to share their experiences with mental health, and am constantly working on balancing listening with speaking. We are all in this together, and I never want to be an activist who acts over the population she is trying to support, because that is just as oppressive as being uninformed or openly aggressive.

To review, how do I approach mental health issues when trying to open the conversation?

  • Recognize that there is no perfect approach and be prepared to change it when my conversation partner isn’t responding
  • Know when to apologize and step back to give someone space to think
  • Listen to what my conversation partner has to say and respect their opinion, even if I don’t agree with them
  • Call out hate and stigma
  • Explain why the oppressive language or damaging stereotype is problematic
  • If I am not comfortable, I say so, and walk away, because that can be just as telling as a conversation
  • End the conversation on a positive note if possible
  • Suggest resources for future information
  • Be aware that every conversation will be diverse, just like people

What do you do to transition into or open conversations about mental health? How do you ensure that you are supportive and empowering as well as informative? What strategies do you use to keep your cool and respond intellectually when your conversation partner says offensive and oppressive things? I’d love to hear some feedback, so drop a line in the comments!

If you’re interested in my experience dating a partner who has insomnia, you can read my previous #LetsTalk article.

Thanks for joining me, and have a great day.

View this post in it’s original form on Rhianna Bowe’s blog.


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