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How Language has the Power to Shift Mental Health Culture

Talking about mental health is difficult. We’re not given the tools or language in school, and daily life certainly doesn’t present many opportunities to have authentic conversations about it.

Starting a conversation

“Where do I begin?” “What if they judge me?” and “What if I say the wrong thing or make them uncomfortable?” are some of the questions we tend to bump into when mental health comes up. Fear of fumbling on the topic can leave us paralyzed and silent. This silence, though, can cause more harm than good. We know that everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health, but by not talking about it, we’re leaving an entire part of our experience in the dark.

Although mental health conversations can be challenging, they’re essential – take it from someone who went from never talking about mental health to talking about it all day every day as a psychologist. These conversations are worth it because of the many benefits to addressing mental health. For example, talking about mental health with someone else takes vulnerability, and that vulnerability allows you to bond with each other.

Mental health-focused conversations allow you to connect with others on a deeper level. And because connection increases wellbeing, talking about mental health has the potential to improve mental health itself. Conversations around mental health also help address specific issues that impact your wellbeing, because having a conversation with someone about something that’s bothering you is more likely to lead to productive action. Using language to address mental health, in this way, is much more constructive than letting the same thoughts swirl around in your own mind.

Shifting your mindset

How to actually talk about mental health is something that leaves many people stumped. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or frozen. But here’s your antidote: shift your mindset to believe that the simple effort of talking about mental health is a step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t go perfectly. In fact, it won’t go perfectly – and that’s ok. Sometimes we get too caught up in what we’re supposed to or not supposed to say, and yes there are some clear tips on language to steer clear of when it comes to mental health (find guidance here), but what’s most important is that we do it and do it often. 

That said, here are some ways to approach conversations about mental health to make it less daunting. The key to beginning is to first assess whether the situation is safe. Sometimes it’s not actually safe (emotionally or otherwise) to talk about your mental health because of stigma and prejudice, and if you’re in one of those situations, silence is protective.

Once you are in a situation that does feel safe, let yourself be vulnerable. Put emotion into the conversation – this is not just a thinking topic but a feeling topic, and embracing the emotional side of it makes it more real. Practice humility. In these situations, you’re learning, just as we’re all learning how to have effective conversations around mental health. It’s ok if you don’t feel like an expert.

Authenticity matters

No one knows everything about mental health. Embrace the discomfort. While the fear of discomfort is tough, if you embrace it, the conversation will become easier. And, if something comes up that you don’t understand, either acknowledge it or make a mental note to do your own research later.The more we talk about mental health, the less stigmatized it becomes, and the greater opportunity we have to both support others and get support ourselves. Language is powerful. It can shift culture, shift norms, and shift perspective.

Having more authentic conversations about our mental health works to normalize mental health itself. And that normalization spurs a shift in perspective. Anyone who’s experienced bias or prejudice can tell you that the impact of others’ perspective is enormous. Creating a perspective that mental health is a normal part of life requires breaking the silence that surrounds it, and language is the only tool for that. So, start talking about your own mental wellbeing and checking in with others about theirs. Language is your tool to dramatically improve how individuals feel and are treated in society. 

For more information on how to have constructive, supportive conversations around mental health, see the Mental Health Coalition’s Roadmap to Friends Supporting Friends.

Keep up with Naomi Torres-Mackie and the Mental Health Coalition on Twitter.

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