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7 Small Ways to Talk About Mental Illness at Work

For a long time, this has been something I’ve struggled with. I’m naturally a very shy and quiet person, so it takes me a long time to feel comfortable talking to new people. Like most people, when I’m in new groups, I tend to stay with the “safe” topics — things I know people will be able to relate to and things that society tells us are “normal” to talk about: favorite TV shows, favorite foods, plans for the weekend, etc.

But more recently, I’ve begun to see the flaws in this plan. Mental health is something we need to talk about because it’s a huge part of people’s lives. And people who struggle with mental illness often feel even more isolated because it isn’t talked about.

A few years ago, I lost a close friend at work to suicide. I work in a field that unfortunately has unreasonably high rates of suicide. It’s a fact I’ve known since I entered the field, but it’s not something I thought I would encounter on a personal level. After that experience, I realized we needed to talk about it. This year specifically, I noticed many of the people I worked with having issues related to mental illness. But they didn’t identify it as such, and the topics were largely ignored. That’s when I realized it was my responsibility to start conversations.

The point of this article isn’t to encourage you that you should go and tell everyone you work with all of your mental illness struggles. Not everybody deserves those stories, and not everyone will respond appropriately or responsibly. If that is something you feel comfortable doing, and trust the people you work with to respond well, then by all means, please do it.

But even if you don’t want to share your whole story, I do believe there are smaller ways we can talk about mental health at work. To acknowledge that mental illness is real, and to support each other, even if we aren’t ready to share our stories. Here are some of the ways I’ve started doing that at my job:

1. Try not to ask “How are you?” if you don’t have time to listen to a real answer.

And if someone gives a one-word answer, ask why. Or ask them to tell you more. When this question is asked as an alternative to “hello” and everyone responds “fine,” it degrades the meaning of this question. Not only do we lose the opportunity to truly hear how people are, but we’re showing people that we don’t actually care and that we expect them to be fine. If someone hears everyone else in the office answer “fine,” they’re unlikely to feel comfortable telling how they actually feel.

2. If someone seems to be struggling, ask what’s going on.

This seems obvious, but it sometimes amazes me how many people will see someone struggling and not try to help. Just by asking what’s going on or if there is anything you can do, you can show the person that you care. Often, they might not want to tell you, and that’s OK. Just let them know that you’re there for them.

3. Ask better questions.

Again, the point is to show that you’re interested in their lives, but also that you don’t expect their lives to be perfect. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we got really tired of asking “any plans for the weekend?” Usually, nobody had anything to say. But even regularly, this can put pressure on people to have plans. Instead, one of the best, related questions someone asked me was, “What’s something you’re looking forward to about this weekend?” Then your answer doesn’t have to be a big event, it can be sleeping in or anything.

4. Be yourself.

For me, there is nothing more reassuring at work than to see someone who is authentically themselves: who has strong beliefs and lives by them. This can be as simple as telling jokes if you’re a funny person, or sharing your favorite classical music song you listened to over the weekend if you’re into music.

5. Build community.

The people you work with don’t have to be your best friends, but it’s still nice to try to do things together. To do something together on breaks, or have a potluck dinner at the end of a big project. You never know how much these small events can mean to somebody.

6. Be honest about your experiences with mental illness.

I am not at the point yet where I openly say that I’ve struggled with my mental health. But if someone asks me a related question, I will not hesitate to say “my therapist” or “my medication for depression.” Just making these things acceptable to talk about can be very powerful. Almost every time I’ve said something about my therapist, it will bring up a conversation about someone else’s. Because many people have been to therapy, even if they don’t bring it up. Again, you don’t always have to bring it up, but I think it’s important to be honest about it (as much as you can be) when it does come up.

7. If you’re in a position of authority, do everything you can to make it OK to talk about these issues.

I remember the first time I brought up my chronic illness to my boss, I was terrified. But when she then told me her struggles with a different chronic illness and how that affected her work, I felt totally comfortable bringing it up in the future. Many people believe these stories will make them seem weaker, but these can actually be the most powerful stories to help your team relate to you and to show them what you’ve dealt with.

How have you tried talking about mental health at your work? What would you add to this list? I hope that if you take anything away from this article, it’s that these are conversations you can have. Everyone can play a part in reducing the stigma around mental illness. And it can save lives.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash