How and Why to Talk About Mental Health

Updated on June 3, 2018
Ezria Copper profile image

My game plan is to research, condense my findings, and translate it into everyday language for busy people.

How We Talk About Mental Health

The Stigma

People avoid talking about mental health for a variety of reasons, including stigma surrounding the issue, fear, and a general uncertainty about what to say. However, as long as the subject is taboo, the recovery of people suffering from mental health problems may be hindered. People often react with anger, shame, or embarrassment when asked about mental health.

People throw around phrases like "crazy," "nut," "whack-job," "fruitcake," etc. These terms are used to insult people we don't agree with, and the slurs suggest that these people have mental health problems. The fact that these terms are used as insults demonstrates how some view mental illness as a character defect or flaw to be looked down upon—when in fact it is a medical condition requiring clinical attention.

We don't stigmatize people with cancer, liver disease, diabetes, or heart disease and we shouldn't for those living with mental illness—after all it is a brain disease. Ultimately, remarks like these hurt and they keep people from seeking help.

— Dan Reidenberg, Executive Director of SAVE (suicide awareness organization)

Talking About Mental Health

One of the ways to challenge stigma against mental health is to have conversations about mental health. It can be a way to allow other people to think about their perceptions and/or stereotypes of mental health. People have no problem talking about their physical health. However mental health is just as important as physical health even though it is often a topic swept under the rug because of the stigma surrounding it. When you talk about mental health it allows people to reanalyze and dispel negative stereotypes and/or misconceptions about mental health

There's a need for deeper understanding, empathy, and advocacy. These phrases are alienating for sure and only point out how most people don't understand the fullness of the disorder.

— Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer, American Foundation of Suicide Prevention

Royalty on Mental Health

Starting a Conversation on Mental Health

  • Text someone and ask them how they are doing.
  • Tell someone how you feel.
  • Ask someone how they unwind after a tough day.
  • Tell someone thank you for something that they did that impacted your mental health positively.

Mental Health

Problems surrounding mental health are often based on an inability to communicate about it. A huge part of the reason we can't communicate about mental illness according to Sarah Caddick, a neuroscientist, is that when someone says that they broke their arm you can understand what is wrong very easily. However, when someone is suffering from a mental health problem people do not understand what is going on in the three pound mass in a person's skull. It is suggested that when talking about mental health to avoid associating mental health with criminality. However, it is encouraged to associate mental health with suicide. If you read about someone who committed suicide, you often read that he or she ended their life because their career was going down hill or something else was going wrong in their life. These things might be triggering events. However, the real reason they committed suicide is because they were suffering from a mental health problem.

People still think that it is shameful if they have a mental illness. They think it shows personal weakness. They think it shows a failing. If it's their children who have a mental illness, they think it reflects their failure as parents.

— Andrew Solomon, journalist

Things to Avoid or Not Do When Talking About Mental Health

  • Avoid making comments that can make a person feel worse like, "snap out of it," "perk up," "forget about it," "I am sure this will pass."
  • Avoid saying, "I know how you feel," especially if you do not because it can invalidate the other person's emotions or experiences.
  • Avoid pointing out others have it worse because it is dismissive.
  • Do not start blaming the person for changes in their behavior because you are tired and frustrated.
  • Avoid or ignore the person.
  • Do not make fun of mental illness.
  • Do not use stigmatizing words like "pyscho" or "crazy."
  • Do not get mad or frustrated.
  • Do not feel remorseful because you didn't know the person had a mental health problem as people often hide it.

We need to talk about mental disorders. We generally don't let having a medical illness define a person's identity, yet we are very cautious about revealing mental illness because it will somehow define a person's competence or even suggest dangerousness.

— Thomas Insel

Defining Terms

People use playground slang like "weirdo", "crazy", "psycho", "fruit loop", etc. to describe someone with mental health problems. It is like the disorder defines who the person is. If it were someone with a broken bone, it would not define the person's identity and neither should a mental health problem. Thomas Insel, the NIMH director does not even like the term "mental health problem". He thinks that because we do not call cancer a "cell cycle problem", mental health problem is not a good term. The thinking is that calling a serious mental illness a behavioral health problem is like calling cancer a pain problem. The same as a tumor does not define someone, neither should a mental health problem.

There's a lot of things that go on in the brain, and just because one thing goes wrong doesn't mean that everything goes wrong.

— Caddick

Resources Used

These articles were accessed on June 29 and June 30, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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