We take another look at mental health stigma

Pick a rule or ideal that you have in your life that you know you have had your entire life. “Finish your plate, be kind to others, don’t fight with your siblings.” Something that is ingrained in your brain, so automatic it is not a conscious decision anymore, you simply just do it. Now, imagine if someone told you that was incorrect. All of a sudden, after believing this your entire life, you have been told there is another way to think about it. 

How would you take it? 

This is the point where we meet many of our group members; often, they think mental health is something to be handled individually and is not something that needs to be cared for as physical health is. Sometimes they feel the symptoms they are experiencing are “just a way of life” or that “everyone feels like I do.” Sometimes they do not understand that there are new ways of coping or that they are able to make the changes to improve their quality of life, because “I’ve lived my whole life like this. What is the point in changing now?” 

Today, we are going to discuss having these conversations with our loved ones because it can be a difficult conversation if not approached in a healthy manner.  Sometimes, frustrations and defense mechanisms come into play and we see a lack of progression forward when this happens. Taking a step back and looking at the following questions can help frame these conversations into something that can be productive and helpful to all those involved.

  • Why do they believe mental health is not vital to their health?
    This is the first step and this question could have a variety of answers, including those included above. We often hear that “not everything needs a label” and a diagnosis is simply “a name for what happens when someone is feeling sad.” Here’s the important piece of that: they learned this information somewhere. Maybe it was from their parents, their extended families, their teachers. Typically it can be traced back to someone who was important to them, so it is important to realize that in this conversation, you are going to be telling them information different from their trusted person.
  • What are their current coping strategies to deal with the mental health symptoms you have noticed?
    For example, let’s say you believe your loved one is having a difficult time with anxiety. Take an inventory of their symptoms: have they always dealt with this? Has it increased recently? Do you know if it is triggered by something specific? What do they do to feel better when their anxiety increases? All of these questions can help paint a larger picture that shows you how they are feeling. If they have found a way to deal with their anxiety, healthy or not, they may feel defensive during a conversation regarding new coping skills. They may feel like, well I’m doing fine so I don’t know why they are bringing this up?
  • What do you think their reaction is going to be to this conversation?
    Typically, we have a gut feeling about how conversations will go with our loved ones. Listen to your gut! Does this feel like a conversation they will listen to with an open-mind? Does it feel like they may become defensive? Plan for what your gut is telling you. By planning for their potential reactions, you limit the ways frustration could boil to the top on both sides of the conversation.
  • Do you know enough information regarding how they are feeling?
    Let’s take a look at the imaginary loved one with anxiety for a second. Do you know what anxiety feels like? Really feels like? Do you know what could have triggered their anxiety? Sometimes, even though we love them deeply, we may not understand the whole picture. Do some research, reach out to a mental health professional. Do what you need to to feel as though you can provide accurate and beneficial assistance.
  • Do you immediately change your opinion after being presented with new facts? 

As much as we’d all love to say yes to this question, the reality is it can be difficult to change our opinions and ways of thinking, especially when it’s an opinion we have had our entire lives, built upon information presented by people we love and trust. This is why dieting or stopping smoking is so difficult, because these ways of living are ingrained in us. This is our reminder to be patient: we often do not see immediate change and acceptance regarding mental health. These things take time. Get a professional involved if you can, bonus points if it is someone your loved one already trusts. 

While the stigma surrounding mental health is changing, we still see many elders struggle with understanding how their mental health can impact their entire life. Approaching it with an open mind and loving heart can assist in creating a meaningful conversation regarding mental health and its importance.