Approaching Conversations About Mental Health With Care And Compassion
By Ayanna Sealey
Illustration by Danielle Peirce
The words ‘mental health’ have become quite the buzz phrase recently, and rightfully so. We are in the midst of such an unprecedented and unique moment in time, where the entire world has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, both mentally and physically.
Ordinarily, some of the toughest conversations to broach or initiate have surrounded or included mental health. That is, until now. This type of crisis situation has shown us the strength and the potential that we possess to adapt and to pivot to new versions of ‘normal’. We read every day about pain like no other that is being experienced globally, but we have also witnessed a type of resilience that many of us did not know we had.
Yet, while mental health concerns are on the rise due to the myriad of challenges that COVID-19 presents, we can be grateful that this pandemic has allowed the topic of mental health to become more widely accepted and much less taboo. There is little exception to who has been impacted, and so the conversation around how people are struggling floats much more easily to the surface. For example, more well-known public figures are speaking about their own issues with mental health. These efforts help to normalize the conversation, allow others to identify with situations that previously felt unique to them, and hopefully seek the help that they require.
Residual concerns remain for some, however, around sharing experiences about mental health struggles. Whether people feel like they may be perceived as weak, or they believe it will have a negative impact on how they will be treated in their workplace or family, or that it falls outside of their cultural norm to reach out for this type of help; many reasons exist which still prevent people from opening up about what they are truly going through. Women, for example, have a much higher rate of depression diagnoses, yet men have approximately three times the likelihood of death by suicide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Women typically seek help with more frequency which may result in a higher number of diagnoses and treatment. Men tend to struggle in silence and are not likely to receive the same support that is needed to overcome their challenges.
Still, other people may not even be at the point where they can easily identify that they themselves are struggling at all and in need of help; and a simple conversation with a friend or colleague just might reveal this. Add to that, if you are a person who ‘stays busy’ all the time, you might be experiencing symptoms of mental illness and not be able to process or realize it.
According to the American National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), some of the signs or symptoms of mental disorders may include ‘irritability, anger or aggressiveness, changes in mood, energy level or appetite, noticeable change in sleep patterns, increased worry or feeling stressed, sadness, feelings of hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions, engaging in high-risk activities, increased aches, headaches, digestive problems without a clear cause, obsessive thinking or compulsive behaviour, thoughts or behaviours that interfere with work, family, or social life and unusual thinking or behaviours that concern other people’.
Becoming familiar with some of the signs is paramount to first recognizing whether we, or others around us, are struggling so we may be better equipped to approach conversations with care and compassion. It is important that we check in with ourselves and on one another, wherever possible. If someone is displaying behaviour that could be indicative of symptoms of mental illness or mental health challenges, it might be as simple as beginning the dialogue by asking: “How are you doing?”, “How are you coping with everything that has been happening?”, “Is there anything that you need at this time?”
Start with a conversation, and perhaps, if these questions trigger a feeling or thought, follow-up by consulting with a family physician, who can point that person in the direction of speaking to a therapist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist.
We now know that millions of people have suffered from depression or anxiety at one point or another in their lifetime, and while conversations have increased, there is still a stigma that exists around sharing these experiences. We must keep moving along the trajectory and in the direction of normalizing conversations surrounding mental health, so that they become as easy and as commonplace as talking about physical afflictions, ailments or illness. From most accounts, we will be living through the age of this pandemic for a while, so it is essential that we are able to have these sometimes-difficult conversations, to address feelings and situations that may arise as a result of this global experience. We are in this together, and hopefully we can continue to uplift and encourage one another, wherever possible.